I had seen some small focused exhibits of Ai Wei Wei’s work in New York galleries over the last few years. The show at the Brooklyn Museum provides an opportunity to see a a wide range of his works, including sculptures, photography and video, spanning more than 20 years, and gives a good sense of who he is as an artist and a political activist.
I noticed a few themes:
Old vs. New
I spent 6 weeks travelling through China a few years ago. Construction was everywhere. The smallest towns were full of giant cranes. We constantly went looking for a restaurant or shop we had read about only to find either a giant empty construction site or a giant new skyscraper. We saw old parts of towns (e.g. Beijing, Pingyao, Lijiang, Shanghai) torn down and Disneyland-esque towns built in their places. Ai deals with this directly–there are rooms wallpapered with photos of construction sites–and less directly, as he does in one of his most iconic pieces:
In “Coca Cola Vase” (this one made in 2007) Ai has taken an ancient vase from around 4,000 B.C. and painted the Coca Cola logo on it, defacing it and turning it into a piece of modern advertising.
In “Colored Vases” (2007-2010), he has taken vases from the Han Dynasty and painted them in bright colors with industrial paint. Ai lived in the U.S. from for 12 years from 1981-1993. He started making works like the Coca Cola vase (an earlier one not on display is from 1994) in the mid-1990’s after he returned to China. On view (behind the colorful urns) is a set of photographs from 1995 in which Ai is seen dropping Han Dynasty vases on the ground, smashing them.
When I was in China, I travelled into the hills of northern Yunan province near the border of Tibet in order to visit the oldest monastery in China. Only as we were hiking up to the monastery did I notice something strange in the view up ahead—the monastery was missing. When I got to the top, I found out that the monastery had been torn down. It was made of wood and was deemed a fire hazard. A new modern monastery was being built in its place.
Ai Wei Wei has made art works from wood salvaged from dismantled ancient temples, including “Map of China” (2008):
It looks like an abstract wood sculpture, but if looked upon from above (which you can’t do because it is about 6 feet tall) it forms a Map of China.
Taking Functional Objects and Turning them into Something New
A number of Ai Wei Wei’s sculptures are made of things that had a functional purpose, such as pieces of furniture or bicycles.
Moon Chest is made up of a series of chests made of huali wood–the highly valued wood of a Chinese quince tree. Ai has cut four holes into each piece of furniture transforming them from functional objects to pieces of art. When they are lined up and you look through them, you can see different phases of the moon.
He has made pieces from stools:
The show includes “Stacked”, a site specific installation of 700 bicycles. It is a comment on the importance that bicycles have played in everyday Chinese life. And perhaps it is signaling the replacement of bicycles by automobiles–the bicycle no longer serves the same function it used to.
Multitudes vs. the Individual
Many of Ai’s works make us strain to find the individual in the multitudes. He questions how we value things, and looks at mass-production. The piece which best exemplifies this in the Brooklyn exhibit is “Bowl of Pearls”. You can also see a similar quality in his sunflower seed piece (which is not included in this exhibit), in the rebar piece, “Straight,” discussed below, and in the names of earthquake victims that fills a long wall in the room with “Straight”.
Art as a Political Message
And, of course, a large part of his work relates to political issues and some of his most recent projects. He has brought a lot of attention to the response of the government to the earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008. He has started a project to find the names of the children who perished in shoddily constructed schools. One room of the exhibit has a wall of the names of the victims, and a large sculpture called “Straight” made of the tangled pieces of rebar from the ruins of the earthquake that he has collected and had straightened out.
Another room has a serpent on the ceiling made of backpacks like those of the children who perished.
The river crabs work shown above also has a political message. Ai served 10,000 crabs to guests invited to view the demolition of his studio in Shanghai by the government. The word for river crabs is He Xie, which is also the word for harmonious–a reference to the censorship of the regime, which is connected with China’s calls for a “harmonious society, free from dissent”.
The exhibit has a number of works related to Ai Wei Wei’s 2011 imprisonment and his persecution by the police. His passport has been confiscated and he is not permitted to leave China. Ai’s lawyer has recently been arrested.
And there a a number of videos on display, including the documentary So Sorry, which had its own room at the exhibit. Ai’s website has a lot of materials including many of the videos that we in the exhibit and others such as a music video about imprisonment written by and starring Ai.
The exhibit is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 10, 2014. A separate admission fee is required.
For more about Ai Wei Wei, I recommend the documentary “Ai Wei Wei Never Sorry“. It is available on Netflix
Read about the exhibit elsewhere:
New York Times review
WNYC: listen to Brian Lehrer and art critic Deborah Solomon discuss the show