Saturday, January 5, 2013
Ai Weiwei: According to What?
When: through February 24, 2013
So after hearing about this show for a couple of months, I finally had an opportunity to see this major exhibition of works by the Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei. I was concerned that it would be nothing but crazy stuff (this is the Hirshhorn, after all), but in fact, there were several items I thought were quite good. Don't get me wrong, it's not a collection of landscape paintings, so if oddness does not appeal, you may wish to stay away. Overall, there were more things that I found interesting than ridiculous.
The bicycle sculpture pictured here is actually on the first floor of the Hirshhorn, so don't miss this just because it's not with the main part of the show. When you make your way to the second floor, you'll hear a voice reading aloud what I later discovered were the names of the children killed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. This recording runs for three hours, and the list of the names takes up the entire left wall - you'll see it as you come up the escalator. On the ceiling is what looks like a snake, but upon closer examination is a chain of backpacks in various sizes, appropriate for schoolchildren. 90,000 people were killed or are still missing as a result of this earthquake - it's hard to imagine the loss of so many lives.
In the first room of the show, there are prints of photographs of the construction of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, the "bird's nest," that was designed by Ai. The photographs cover the entire walls and the floor, so you feel as if you are completely immersed in the building.
In the next rooms, there are very large wooden sculptures, made of reclaimed wood from Chinese temples that are (apparently) in the shape of China. The problem is that you can only see this if you're looking down on the sculpture from above, so until I read the commentary on the wall, this point was lost on me. It occurs to me that the set-up in the African Art Museum would be great for these - the area where you look down on the show in the second floor from the first floor. Sadly, this is in the Hirshhorn, where they have no such arrangement.
There are also a couple of videos - they look like traffic cameras, and are about as interesting. Happily, I was distracted from these offerings by three small brown houses, made of tea! They are literal teahouses. Crazy it may be, but it's the kind of crazy I like. I really admire the creativity of that. Another great work is "Moon Chest." It's seven large chests made of Huali wood; they align so that if you look through the holes towards the bottom (these were at about my eye level), you can see the phases of the moon. This is quite difficult to describe, but if you go to the show, you'll see what I mean.
Ai also makes use of old vases in his work. He takes urns and pots that are thousands of years old and paints over them. On one vase, he had painted the Coca-Cola label. "Is this desecration?" I asked myself. More to the point, is it trademark infringement? My love of antiquities was at war with my appreciation of the recycling he's doing.
There are many more items on display, but I won't write you a laundry list of everything. Do note that the show continues on the 3rd floor with two more pieces.
Verdict: This is a show of truly unusual art. Much of it is a reminder of the Sichuan earthquake and an indictment of the government's actions. I think it's worth a trip. You can see all of it fairly quickly, if you don't linger, but you could also spend a couple of hours, if you studied everything.