It’s probably fair to say that few contemporary art exhibitions these days require their own liaison at the State Department. But when you’re dealing with an artist like Ai Weiwei, whose status as a thorn in the backside of the Chinese government is only rivaled in magnitude by the hero worship he gets from the Western art establishment, the lines between art and diplomacy can become a little blurry.
Ai—contemporary artist, dissident, Internet celebrity, cult figure—is nothing if not a bundle of contradictions, but he’s also as much a part of his body of work as anything he’s produced in the past 30 years. The blurry 2009 iPhone photo he took of himself surrounded by police in an elevator is one of his masterpieces, as is a scan of his brain revealing bleeding (the result of being beaten while in police custody). The perfect artist for our oversharing, overpopulated Internet age, Ai the personality is impossible to distinguish from Ai the conceptual artist. A single piece of his work, taken out of context, can feel hollow, or flashy, or even meaningless.
Context isn’t a problem in “Ai Weiwei: According to What?,” the artist’s first major American retrospective. The show, which opens at the Hirshhorn this weekend, is based on an exhibition that opened at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum in July 2009, shortly before Ai was arrested and beaten by the police after trying to testify on behalf of a fellow activist. The past three years have been calamitous in many ways for Ai: He’s been declared a pervert and a deviant by the Chinese authorities, his blog has been shut down, and he was imprisoned for three months and hit with a $2 million fine for “tax evasion.” The government also took away his passport, which is why he’s currently sequestered in China instead of basking in glory in DC.
“According to What?” addresses all these incidents and more, and while the artist’s oversize presence is missed, it’s impossible to say it isn’t felt. His words are inscribed on the walls of the Hirshhorn’s undulating second-floor gallery, and he appears in countless photographs throughout the show, whether posing naked as a twentysomething in New York City, flipping off Tiananmen, or dropping a priceless Han Dynasty urn on the ground with an inscrutable expression on his face. He’s also issued a statement to the Hirshhorn in which he speaks frankly about current circumstances. “I’ve experience dramatic changes in my living and working conditions over the past few years, and this exhibition has been an opportunity to reexamine past work and communicate with audiences from afar,” it states.
The show starts, ironically enough, with images of the “Bird’s Nest,” the stadium Ai helped design for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and “Divina Proportione” and “F Size,” two geometric sculptures made from huali wood. It’s an introduction that seems to emphasize Ai’s love for design and form, two qualities that feel incompatible with his irrepressible iconoclasm, and it begs us to wonder what he might have become had circumstances not shepherded him towards activism. An architect? A sculptor? Isamu Noguchi?
Of all of the events that seem to have influenced Ai, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake is probably the most significant, and its presence in the show is ghostly. At the top of the second-floor escalator is “Remembrance,” in which a voice reads the names of the students who died that day, buried under the remnants of shoddy “tofu” construction. The recording lasts more than three and a half hours. In the corridor overlooking the Hirshhorn’s central courtyard, a gaudy, bright green snake stretches around the ceiling. It takes a good minute or so to realize it’s fashioned from hundreds of children’s backpacks.
Inside the exhibition, black-and-white photographs reveal the devastation from that day, and “Straight,” a vast collection of 38 tons of steel rebars salvaged from collapsed buildings, hints at the scale of the tragedy. In the same room, “He Xie,” an assembling of 3,200 porcelain crabs in brown, gray, and orange, pays homage to the party Ai threw in 2010 to celebrate the government’s destruction of his studio—although Ai himself was under house arrest at the time, a group of his followers feasted on crabs to mark the occasion (“river crab” in Chinese sounds very similar to “harmony,” one of the government’s official slogans).
Without the crabs, it would be harder to discern a sense of Ai’s overarching sense of humor, visible in “Zodiac Heads,” the cartoon-friendly bronze sculptures that decorate the Hirshhorn’s central courtyard, and “Coca-Cola Vase,” in which he painted a neolithic vase with the world-famous beverage logo in bright silver lettering. Ancient and modern, priceless and mass-produced—these are constructs Ai demolishes, placing thousands and thousands of freshwater pearls in two giant bowls and forming 40 antique stools from the Qing dynasty into a shape that looks something like a prickly smile.
Ai’s arrest last year was widely protested by factions including art lovers, champions of free speech, and, oddly, blackjack players, who got to know the artist during his gambling days in Atlantic City in the ’80s and ’90s. The artist, in other words, is a messy, contradictory mishmash of opposing qualities—heroic activist and relentless joker, art icon and naked star of his own photoshoots. “I see it as a stream of activities rather than a fixed entity,” he says of the exhibition, which he is also thrilled to have displayed in Washington, the political capital of the world. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that one of the show’s final images is of him giving the finger to the White House—both a dismissive gesture and a reverent thank-you to the land of free speech.
“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is at the Hirshhorn Museum from October 7 through February 24. For more information, visit the Hirshhorn’s website.