Monday, May 27, 2013

Ai Weiwei's Challenges and Questions

According to What? is a retrospective that covers twenty years of work in many media by the Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. Organized by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it is the first North American tour of his work, now showing in Indianapolis through July 21. 
Poster in the parking lot at the IMA. A larger one
faces the major intersection near the Museum gates.

Of Ai, more may be known about his story than his work: how he was surveilled by the Chinese police, attacked in the night and beaten to the point of a brain bleed as retribution for his efforts to document the names of the thousands of children killed in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The government has never acknowledged that the schools that yielded immediately to the shocks were shoddily constructed death-traps for the children. Ai was later detained for several months on fabricated tax evasion charges. He became an international symbol for resistance against the Chinese government's attacks on human rights and freedom of expression. He is now the global symbol and spokesman for freedom of individual and artistic expression. 

Ai's personage was very familiar to me, although his work was not, so I went to this show with great anticipation of the work of the internationally recognized, influential, contemporary artist.

Had I really been looking for the work of "the most controversial artist in the world," I would have been sorely disappointed. As it was, I was deflated. The final work in the show is a documentary film, "So Sorry," made from footage shot by the artist's colleagues and friends, which chronicles Ai's conflicts with Chinese authorities: We witness the political controversies that have made him a key figure in the cause of free expression. There is controversy, yes.

Elsewhere, however, his challenges to authority, mores, and history are almost stunningly jejune. As a viewer, I find myself empathizing with the high school art teacher who sighs over the work of yet another class of freedom-loving adolescents whose lifted fingers, voiced "fucks," or engaged spray cans make them strut with imagined revolutionary inventiveness. How many times has the teacher had to suffer this rite of passage?

Something like that is what I thought when I encountered, early in the show two photographs from Ai's Studies of Perspective series. Alluding in the title to the sketcher's use of an uplifted index finger for gauging spatial relationships, he substitutes the irreverent middle
Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective, Tiananmen and Study of Perspective, White House, Inkjet prints, both 1995-2003. Courtesy of
Ai Weiwei Studio. Photograph by the author.

finger in a contemptuous and vulgar gesture toward these seats of government. Apparently these photographs are from a series of studies that include the Eiffel Tower and the Reichstag. Were the reductive, inarticulate gesture used in a rich context, there would be no reason for disappointment. But I find nothing beyond the obvious to raise these works beyond the status of one-off. What would incline me to look at them again? What would grow on me? I can't answer that question.

Similarly with a series of photographs that form one face of According to What? and, I believe, is thought to represent a controversial act. In the sequence, Ai drops a Han Dynasty urn, roughly 2,000 years old. Clearly, he doesn't even flinch as he performs as act we are
presumed to witness aghast. ("The steely terrorist!" or, "The toddler in tantrum!" You choose.)
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995/2009. Image courtesy of the artist. Each photo, 75-3/8 x 70-7/8." Courtesy of the
Indianapolis Art Museum.
These photographs fill up a wall, so the images of Ai loom over the viewer. He is a menacing presence; the series has the feel of stills from a movie in which the assassin reveals to his next victim through visual metaphor, just how easily he can annihilate him or her. I feel no anxiety over the fate of the vase, because the images give us no information that suggests that it is remarkable. That it is ancient comes from a gallery note that gives the title and tells us when the Han period was. Whether an American's assumption that its age indicates high monetary value is not discussed: I just don't know. But I do know that visually, the vase is of secondary interest to the power of this large, fierce man. 

These photos are still, from the film of a performance. The point of the performance was, according to the catalogue (page 89), to be "a work of conceptual art that captures the moment when tradition is transformed and challenged by new values." The performance may well have achieved that.

But there is a chilly violence to this embodiment of the idea that new generations need to transform or challenge traditional values. Wasn't the Cultural Revolution about destroying them? I find this work disturbing. Either one can agree with notes that say it means what they assert it does; or one can look and see a threatening bully smashing a pot with no  appearance of concern for the significance of the vessel, the action, or the spectrum of interpretations.

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2007-2010. Han Dynasty vases
(206 BCE- 220 CE) and industrial paint. Photo by the author.
Ai uses more Han period vases in Colored Vases, an installation of just that, vases painted in colors of industrial paint so opaque and brilliant that they look like a display in the patio shop at Home Depot or Pier1. My eye makes little more of this aggregation than that: a collection of jolly pots useful for a casual, graphic sort of interior design.

Once more, it is only through external information that we learn that these have been transformed; that Ai painted them with industrial paint so that, if the note has any authority, "the vases challenge the viewer to consider questions about authenticity and the value and meaning of original artwork." If this is indeed so, why would he have to alter more than one to make the point?

Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2007-2010. Image courtesy of the artist
 and courtesy of the Indianapolis Art Museum.
Without the gallery note, I would have no reason at all for the questions it suggests, since nothing about this installation leads me to think that I am dealing with an original artwork of any period, let alone any of historical note. The histories of the vases are entirely effaced. The altered vessels are simply mundane, which is deplorable as a message about challenging cultural values of the past. Again, I feel like Ai plays the naughty boy who has not thought very deeply about his simplistic actions. 

Ai's conceptual work seems to me either simplistic or so engaged with the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and with the Minimalist artists of the 1960s as to be of no unusual significance. There is certainly no controversial content, for he covers ground well-covered for decades.

His best work, though, is when he brings something that feels heart-felt to his conceptual and Minimalist—his very cerebral—forms. This may, in fact, account for my overall disappointment with his work. 

Politically, Ai is testy, aggressive, and histrionic. His modes of art-making, however, are hyper-rational, controlled and cool. While his work is all about culture, history, and to a lesser extent, politics, the personal doesn't so often appear. It is difficult to make personal connection with much of the work. 

Ai Weiwei, China Log, 2005. Tieli wood
(ironwood) from dismantled temples of the
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911.) Photo by the
The art with warmth is work in which materials matter, not to be effaced, but to be revered and admired. Where Ai uses ancient ceramics only to destroy or deface them, he salvages and preserves antique and rare woods. Many works in the show were fabricated by master woodworkers out of ancient or rare woods, using historical joinery techniques.

China Log joins five ironwood beams from dismantled historical temples and joins them into a log, the cross-cut ends of which form gaps that describe the map of China. If there's a commentary about the relevance of the past, it seems to be that the history and culture define and secure the country's definition. The ancient wood is in color and texture well-named: It appears to be an unassailable material. The log, which one is urged not to touch, in fact is so sturdy and beautiful, that it appeared to me as beautiful place to rest and let one's hands enjoy the satiny finish of the wood.

As a commentary on China, I felt this a positive, even nostalgic work, about duration and durability; about its indelible presence in the mind of the artist. An amusing impression from my American childhood that further endeared this to me: Any holes we dug when we were little would eventually "lead to China" on the other side of the Earth. Here, at last, was the perfect fulfillment of the conviction I'd secretly cherished for so many years. I found a bit of myself in this as I was feeling something warm and contemplative coming from Ai.

Ai Weiwei, Kippe, 2006. Tieli wood (ironwood) from dismantled temples of the Qing
Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bars. Photo by the author.
Ai's Kippe, too, was another work that stands out for its warmth, beauty, and personal qualities. Appearing to be an enormous pile of wood stacked for the fireplace or oven, it is packed perfectly tightly to form a flawless block. It incorporates architectural ornaments, mere splinters, and slices from cross-cuts of the beautiful ironwood trees. It forms a wall almost like  an oven glowing a steady heat. Who would need anything the woodpile itself does not give?

The notes connect the work to Ai's memories not only of the family's woodpile, but of the village basketball hoop (the uprights) and parallel bars, which are easily read into the structure. Is the success of this piece—its accessibility to the sensoriums and imaginations of others—a result of its genesis in Ai's lived experience?

Similarly, Ai's Teahouse thrilled me because I think of connections made through his use of charged materials. The house itself is a brown, Western style, boxy house without windows or doors, placed on a bare, flat yard of brown leaves. Every aspect of this installation is made of tea leaves—of Pu'er tea from Yunnan, fermented and aged. The house is composed of tightly compressed leaves; the floor is of scattered loose ones.
Ai Weiwei, Teahouse, 2011. Compressed and loose tea. Photo by the author.

Visually, this is certainly not representing the location for a traditional ceremony, or for a rite of any sort. It is a reinterpretation of a Minimalist style tableau in a new material, creating a punning title. What makes it special, though—and seems not to be commented on—is the fragrance of the tea. The area of the gallery surrounding the installation is saturated by the sweet, moist scent of tea that warms every aspect of the senses. The entire body responds to this work in a way it would be impossible to 
react to the same shapes made of a scent-neutral material. It's hard to believe that the aroma wasn't part of Ai's plan, that it wasn't his own escape route from the formal rigors of a discipline he's trapped himself in?

Ai Weiwei, Grapes, 2011. 40 antique wooden stools
 from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Photo
by the author.

There are several pieces in which Ai disassembles antique furniture only to reassemble it in non-functional ways intended to call attention to the beauty of traditional joinery and construction techniques, as in Grapes, an assemblage of three-legged stools. Qing woodworkers secured joints without nails or glue. In this piece and others, Ai evidences his respect for high-level craftsmanship. There is even a meter-square Minimalist cube covered in sheets of rosewood carving of great intricacy, which we compare to an exquisite tiny rosewood box once carried by the artist's father. It is touching and inspiring to see this interest in the continuation of traditional values of fine craft despite his crude and shallow gestures elsewhere that assert the need for new cultural values at the expense of fine works of the past. But it leaves this viewer wondering where he draws the line and why; and whether we expect too much philosophy from an artist who may actually be in the formative stages of his thinking about the intersection of cultural legacy and regime in his mercurial country.

Ai Weiwei, Names of Student Earthquake Victims Found by the
Citizens' Investigation,
2008-2011. Inkjet print, exhibition copy.
Photography by the author.
I was uneasily aware, too, that Ai, like many conceptual artists, depends on legions of anonymous experts to fashion the work that comes to us above his name. His Citizens' Investigation project that works still to uncover the names of the students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai  believes, like Maya Lin, that to name a name is to acknowledge the importance of an individual life. 

This principle is dear in times of tragedy, but not so much when it comes to ascribing artistic credit. On recordings by symphonies, it would be considered churlish to withhold the names of the instrumentalists and give credit only to composer and conductor. In art, there seems to be no issue with crediting Ai as the brains and never naming the master craftsmen who executed his works in wood shops or forges. There are few works (photographs aside) in the show one that one imagines coming from the rough hands of the artist himself.

In the last gallery of According to What? we encounter work surrounding the efforts to name the students lost in the earthquake. On the wall is a reproduction of the spreadsheet kept in Ai's studio, listing the names, birth dates, ages, and sexes of the children discovered so far (over 5,000). On the floor is the installation, Straight, made from straightened rebar rods recovered from the disaster sites. The room also displays Ai's documentary photos of the region 
Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-2012. Steel rebar (38 tons). Photo by the author.
and its rubble. Beside those, a video shows the process of straightening and replicating the rods one by one in preparation for Straight. 
On another wall is the cellphone photo Ai took of himself surrounded by police as he was taken away in an elevator. This is hung next to an X-ray from which his cerebral hemorrhage was diagnosed. 

The single gallery, then,  deeply mixes documentation, dramatization, and what is meant to be artistic response. In this one room, we have the bare list of the names of deceased children; and black and white photos of the crime scene. The memorial rebar installation lies low on the floor. A movie about its making makes noise in the atmosphere. In fact, everything on the walls distracts from its solemnity: It feels rather in the way.

So we come to the end of Ai Weiwei's show with an unfocused gallery and a documentary made by the artist's group about its own efforts. It leaves us wondering whether the show is meant to honor Ai's art itself, or his art as the work of a political dissident whose efforts have placed him on the world stage. Clearly, his art reputation has benefitted from his political action. In So Sorry, we witness his engagement with the cause of the families of missing children; we are given to understand that the title "references the apologies of governments and corporations when their negligence leads to tragedies." 

Yet he films spends very little footage on interviews and testimony from bereft families, devoting quite a lot to producing the hagiography Ai seems intent from the beginning to secure. I found it distasteful, as the focus seems far from the apparent issue of the dignity and safety of the earthquake zone families, and much more on the visibility of Ai and his need to outfox and humiliate the police. While I never question the justice of his cause, I never feel sure that the hero is much better than an adolescent bully either.

So, go see According to What? in Indianapolis or at one of its subsequent stops—the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Miami Art Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum. When I saw it, well into its Indianapolis run, the galleries were very busy. Is Ai the world's most controversial artist? Not by a long shot. His controversy is in other spheres, and it's mistaken to try to transfer his importance as a supporter of rights to his importance as an artist. I suspect that in ten or fifteen years, curators will look back and blush. 

For now, take a look at some interesting, sometimes good work and then think about it. If your pulse remains low, remember that Indianapolis also has fine American decorative arts, and their 100 Acres sculpture garden is open...

Ai Weiwei, China Log, detail.

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