Ai Weiwei He Xie

Ai Weiwei: Here in Spirit

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the public so engaged with an exhibition. Leave it to the impish, provocative Ai Weiwei to awaken Washington’s conservative soul. If China needs artists like Ai, so do we.

Ai Weiwei: According to What?– the artist’s first retrospective in North America– opened today at the Hirshhorn and more than meets the hype. It spans mischief, defiance and tragedy, and it makes you think.

With Ai, it’s important to understand what you’re looking at; there are layers of meaning that draw on history, politics and language. And there’s the artist’s tense relationship with Chinese authorities (he is not able to leave China and so did not attend the Hirshhorn opening). To grasp all the dynamics at play, I recommend seeing the recent documentary, Never Sorry, which does a nice job of tracing Ai’s personal and political evolution.

Having seen the film, I knew the full story behind Ai’s push to call authorities to account after so many schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to shoddy construction. Straight, an installation of several tons of straightened rebar rods pulled from the rubble of Sichuan, is perhaps the most moving piece in the show. It’s designed to mimic Sichaunese topography, with a fissure down the middle representing the quake’s impact, and stands as a fitting memorial.

But there’s plenty more to ponder. A piece called He Xie, for example, plays on the words for “river crab” and “harmony”, which sound alike in Mandarin. He xie is also slang for Internet censorship, and so the 3,200 porcelain crabs piled on top of one another are a statement on free expression.

Kudos to the Hirshhorn (and Ai) for allowing photography for personal use– a rarity for special exhibitions in Washington. It really changed the mood in the galleries, and Ai’s work begs to be shared. My Instagram snaps are below.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? runs through Feb. 24, 2013 at the Hirshhorn.

He Xie (River Crabs)



Bowls of Pearls

China Log

Ai Weiwei Han Dynasty Vase

Never Sorry

If you’re the kind of person, like me, who’s looking forward to the Hirshhorn’s big Ai Wei Wei exhibit this October, you’ll love Never Sorry, a smart new documentary about the artist/activist.

First-time American director Alison Klayman does a masterful job illuminating Ai’s many facets — brilliant social critic, media manipulator, patriot and loving father. I walked away with a much better understanding of where the artist comes from. Sequences on his family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution and his decade in New York were particularly instructive.

To get all the allusions Klayman includes in the film, it helps to know something of Chinese culture, history and language. China hands will appreciate New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos’s insights into Ai’s cat-and-mouse game with Communist officials. But even if you’re a China novice, the film offers a lot to chew on. It takes on big questions about the individual’s role in society, and should be required viewing for anyone seeing Ai’s installations.

Highly recommended.

On a side note: I had the day off today, so I saw the 3:30 show at Washington’s E Street Theatre. There’s a funny thing about seeing mid-afternoon movies: Sometimes you think you see ghosts from the past.

Zen and the Museum: Top Five for 2011

I’m reaching beyond the Beltway for my top five this year, to include the Met and–a nice surprise– the Denver Art Museum. My most memorable museum experiences this year ranged from contemplative to camp:

1. Fragments in Time and Space (Hirshhorn): Seeing Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, illuminated in a pitch-black gallery that mimicked the curve of the earth, was almost a religious experience. “Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing,” Sugimoto writes of his work. A voyage of seeing. If I had a mantra, that would be it.

2. Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands (Metropolitan Museum of Art): If the aim of these newly renovated galleries is to present the “plurality of the Islamic tradition,” the Met succeeds beyond expectation. I visited last weekend and was blown away by the depth of this collection, particularly in the Iranian section. My sister, a high school history teacher in the DC area, is already planning a day trip for her AP students. I walked out of there thinking, I’m lucky I live a short train ride from New York.

3. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (Metropolitan Museum of Art): I arrived first thing Sunday morning and only had to wait in line 40 minutes. So worth it, and extra fun coming on the heels of a royal wedding and New York’s same sex marriage victory. The clothes were astonishing; the creative genius behind them more so.

4. Nigeria Unmasked (National Museum of African Art): Because my experience in Africa is lacking–I’ve only been once, to Ouagadougou, of all places–this trip through Nigeria’s Benue River Valley was an eye-opener. The video installations in particular bring the region’s rich culture to life, showing ghostly 1960s footage of ritual masquerades. Made me wonder why I didn’t pursue anthropology. See it through March 4, 2012.

5. Robert Adams: The Place We Live (Denver Art Museum): I guess I should give Denver more credit; turns out the city supports a world-class art museum. On my first trip to the city this year, for a wedding, I spent a quiet afternoon studying Robert Adams’ spare black-and-white landscapes and thinking about what it means to be Western. Adams’ translation of Colorado’s wide open spaces made me understand a little bit better. Runs through January 1, 2012.

Sugimoto: Zen and the Sea

The cicadas are in full voice outside my window, which means it’s almost time for my annual trip to Block Island, RI — 25 years and counting.

For me, it’s the most relaxing place on earth. I watch my nieces and nephews play in the surf, look out at the Atlantic and feel my urban-induced urge to keep moving fall away.

This year, I channeled the New England coast early, while gazing at Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, part of the Fragments in Time and Space exhibit at the Hirshhorn.

Sugimoto’s series of horizon lines–some crystal clear, others hazy as wet cotton–are presented in a darkened room, following the outer arc of the museum’s walls as if following the curve of the earth. The composition and quality of light vary so much from one photo to the next, you’re forced to consider each as a separate chapter in the photographer’s life. Where was he? What was he thinking? Was he satisfied with life?

I’d never seen the series before, but it’s got legions of fans. After Googling around, I discovered that U2 appropriated one of Sugimoto’s Seascapes for the cover if its 2009 release, “No Line on the Horizon,” and there’s a Flickr pool called “Seascapes After Sugimoto,” which has some impressive imitations.

I found Seascapes stunning, and I didn’t want to leave the room. There’s something about the balance of sea and sky–never changing and never the same. It’s as true off the New England coast as it is off Ha Long Bay.

Fragments in Time and Space continues through August 28, 2011, at the Hirshhorn.

D.C. Museums: Three Zen Moments

My colleagues and I are contending with high stress levels lately, in advance of big meetings in mid-April. Long hours have fragmented my attention span. To force myself not to think about work on my free Saturday, I found three places to exhale, in and around the Mall.

Highly recommended:

Rothko room at the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing.

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, this week framed by cherry blossoms.

Sackler Gallery’s Echoes of the Past: Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan.

DC Museums: Five Best in New Media

Arianna Huffington wrote a thoughtful post this week on the challenge museums face in balancing new technologies with preserving the analog wonder of the museumgoing experience.

“It’s great to see institutions dedicated to what is often seen as elitist high art engaging with the bottom-up energy of the web,” she writes. “But if museums forget their DNA and get their heads turned by every new tech hottie that shimmies by, they will undercut the point of their existence. Too much of the wrong kind of connection can actually disconnect us from an aesthetic experience.”

It’s all about finding the right balance, of course. I visit museum websites and tap into their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to learn more about the artists or events they’re featuring, but when I visit in person, I seek silence and contemplation, not a community of voices.

I prefer to attend exhibits alone and I never use audio tours. If I’m really interested, I’ll visit twice–once to read the wall text, once to focus on the collection. I’ve found the balance that works for me.

At the same time, I appreciate museums that are innovating in new media, to draw people into exhibits and expand community reach. Done right, it can strengthen a museum’s mission.

This list of 41 examples from the blog Know Your Own Bone shows what a dynamic space this is. It prompted me to think about which D.C. museums are using new media in interesting ways.

So, on the last day of 2010, a list of five best practices that stood out this year:

1. Best blog content: It isn’t glitzy, but the Smithsonian Collections blog does a great job of opening up the institution’s vaults to expose artifacts you might never see on public view. I especially love the photography posts, like this one about a family photo album donated to the Freer-Sackler by Iranian author Azar Nafisi.

2. Best slideshow: Last fall, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sponsored a trip to Sudan to “bear witness” against the genocide there. The slideshow that resulted from the trip, featuring moving photos by Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins, was an effective way to tell Sudan’s story and amplify the museum’s mission.

3. Best use of Facebook: The Hirshhorn’s daily FB “visitor snapshots” are just plain fun — combination personal backstory, incisive art criticism, and off-beat humor. Though they’ve profiled museumgoers from across the country, the Nov. 17 squirrel cameo (and an even better follow-up, Dec. 22) had to be the year’s masterstroke. Like them; you’ll see.

4. Best iPhone app: Not something I would use, but kudos to the National Museum of Natural History for converting one of its most popular in-museum activities, the MEanderthal photo booth, into a mobile app. The app allows users to morph photos of themselves into neanderthals. Kids love it.

5. Best use of video: I have to give this one to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for incorporating consistently interesting exhibition videos on its website. They’re stylishly shot and feature the right ratio of curator-artist commentary (clearly a low tolerance for dull talking heads). This Chuck Close video was the year’s winner.

DC Museums: Top Five for 2010

Time for a look back at what inspired me in DC’s museums this year. These are the exhibits that lingered in my mind weeks after I saw them.

1. Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor: This one’s a holdover from last year, but bears repeating because those faces are unforgettable. I first saw the warriors when I lived in Taiwan three years ago, then saw them twice again during their run at National Geographic headquarters this year. They speak from another time, and they have no equal. A trip to Xi’an, China, is on my life list.

The warriors ended their U.S. tour in March. Catch up with them down under, at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, through March 13, 2011.

2. From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection: Each time I stopped by the National Gallery of Art this year, I took a few moments to admire Modigliani’s Nude on a Blue Cushion–one of many stellar portraits of women in this wide-ranging exhibit. See it through July 30, 2011.

3. Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia: A small exhibit, but one that stoked my love of Asia, thirst for travel and interest in history. Honestly, I could look at Buddha statues for hours. Angkor Wat? Up there with Xi’an on my must-see list. Catch this one before it closes Jan. 3, 2011, at the Freer-Sackler.

4. Guillermo Kuitca: Everything–Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008: This one surprised me. I’d never heard of Kuitca before but found his approach to art original, inventive and charming. His exploding opera house seating charts are nightmarish and beautiful all at once. See them through Jan. 16, 2011 at the Hirshhorn.

5. Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration: A peek into the mind of a master, this exhibit ended a 16-year-run at the Corcoran this summer. It gave me new appreciation for Close’s genius and, through portraits of his friends and family members, a fuller picture of the man. For more Close, check out Fanny/Fingerpainting at the National Gallery of Art. It’s one of my favorites.

Guillermo Kuitca: Opera Houses Unbound

You know when you reserve a ticket for the symphony and the seating chart pops up online? Ever consider that seating plan from the perfomer’s point of view, on stage? Ever consider it art?

Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca, whom I’d never heard of before yesterday, did consider it, and produced an oddly beautiful series of opera house seating plans as hybrid photograph-print-paintings, now on show as part of the Hirshhorn’s Everything exhibit.

The plans, which portray the world’s great opera houses including Covent Garden and La Scala, are warped, melted, inverted and exploded in bright colors, forcing the viewer to reimagine performance space and the meaning of audience from the stage outward.

Many of the pieces in Everything caught my attention–Kuitca also does wonderful things with maps–but the seating plans really got me. It’s a truly original idea, and I love that Kuitca traveled to many of the opera houses to research his subject.

In fact, it made me want to add opera houses to my itinerary when I travel. I’ve spent countless hours at the Kennedy Center and I visited Copenhagen’s spectacular new Opera House a few years ago, but I can’t think of any others I’ve experienced.

As for Kuitca, count me a fan.

Guillermo Kuitca: Everything–Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008 runs through January 16, 2011 at the Hirshhorn.