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