From left to right: Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium, 2005-08; Divina Proportione, 2006; F-Size, 2011. Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012. Photo: Cathy Carver
An enormous black, white and lime-green serpent twists across the ceiling, contorting its vertebrae through a hallway at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Constructed out of children’s backpacks, the work pays homage to over 5,000 school children whose lives were claimed by the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. Part of the immense exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What?, now on at the Art Gallery of Ontario, this simultaneously playful and menacing creature is the stuff of a childhood nightmares, resembling a cryptozoological beast out of a strange fairytale.
At the heart of this exhibition—the first survey of Ai’s work in North America—lies the human need to pursue play at all costs, even in the face of an authoritarian government and widespread human tragedy. It’s a need that Ai, who recently spent time in jail in China, understands well. In Ai Weiwei: According to What?, the artist serves as a scavenger, picking up fragments and piecing them together to create a new, reimagined whole.
“He says that, by breaking or deconstructing an existing value, you can only find a new value or something creative,” explains Mami Katoaka, Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo—the gallery that organized the traveling exhibition in 2009. She makes this comment in an online video featuring an exhibition walk-through at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., gesturing at a black-and-white photograph of the artist dropping a Han Dynasty urn in 1995 (Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn) to illustrate her point. Similarly, in Colored Vases (2008), Ai playfully treats vases from the Neolithic age as readymades, dipping them in candy-coloured industrial house paint. “He transforms the historical object very beautifully,” says Katoaka, citing this piece as an example of Weiwei’s creating “another value.”
Ai Weiwei, Kippe (2006). Collection of the Honus Tandijono. Image courtesy of the artist
That the will to play is inexorably linked to the will to live is one of the clearest themes running throughout the exhibition. In Kippe (2006), Ai works with 6,000 wooden blocks—similar to a tower made with children’s building blocks—stacked differently each time the piece is assembled. The blocks fit neatly inside a set of parallel bars, referencing Ai’s memories of his childhood.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government exiled Ai Weiwei’s father, Chinese poet Ai Qing, to Shihezi, a city in northern Xinjiang, where the family lived for 16 years. “He said in the school there was only this parallel bar and one basketball goal to play around, so children had to be very creative to enjoy their schoolyard,” says Katoaka. The wood references the firewood his family would stack to keep warm outside their home—often in beautiful arrangements—thus linking the themes of play, aesthetics and survival, while the wooden blocks evoke Ai’s impulse to conjoin fragmented pieces together to create a “new value.”
It’s an impulse he explores in Straight (2008–2012), a large floor sculpture constructed with 38 tons of rebar recovered from Sichuan after the earthquake. The piece confronts the need to transform and communicate trauma by gathering together broken pieces. “How to I express such a historic and disastrous event simply and directly?” Ai queries in a video about the making of the piece.
After collecting the steel rebar—artifacts of the shoddily constructed schools that collapsed into the earth—Ai explains that his team hammered the bars until they were “returned to near mint condition after the treatment.” Straight captures our desire to reestablish order and harmony following periods of chaos and destruction—but a jagged crack running through the centre of the bars seems to gesture at the futility of ever putting the pieces back together correctly.
Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008–12). Collection of the artist. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2012. Photo: Cathy Carver
Ai himself has seen his own life shattered in many ways: government authorities demolished his Shanghai studio, beat him until his brain began to hemorrhage, and threw him in jail for three months without official charges. Now he spends his time in his Beijing studio, where his every move is under 24-hour government surveillance.
At the beginning of the exhibition in the AGO, viewers are surrounded by a slideshow of thousands of digital images of Ai Weiwei at work in his studio in northeastern Beijing between 2003 and 2011—the same studio police occupied and raided in 2011, when they arrested him. This group of photos, 258 Fake, offers an intimate glimpse into the personal life of an artist, including a self-portrait Ai took showing images of his face after it was battered by police. The photos clearly mark Ai’s desire to piece together his own life story in the face of a regime that seeks to silence him.
Ai Weiwei, He Xie (2010–). Collection of the artist. Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2012. Photo: Cathy Carver
The exhibition also provided Canadian viewers with an opportunity to share their own thoughts on the artist through individual video responses. Gillian McIntyre, Interpretive Planner at the AGO, says she’s “delighted at the broad demographics represented in visitors.” Many were quick to share their own thoughts with the AGO about free expression, reflecting on Canada’s own policies. “For Ai Weiwei, art, life and activism are one, so I think this work was accessible to a broader audience than contemporary art usually is,” says McIntyre.
Despite having lived through many hardships, Ai remains creatively undeterred, as he writes in his artist statement for the North American exhibition. “Some of my life experiences have been tragic and painful,” he says, “but I value them all.”
Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.
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