|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 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.
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.
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.
|Ai Weiwei, China Log, 2005. Tieli wood|
(ironwood) from dismantled temples of the
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911.) Photo by the
|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 Weiwei, Teahouse, 2011. Compressed and loose tea. Photo by the author.|
|Ai Weiwei, Grapes, 2011. 40 antique wooden stools|
from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Photo
by the author.
|Ai Weiwei, Names of Student Earthquake Victims Found by the|
Citizens' Investigation, 2008-2011. Inkjet print, exhibition copy.
Photography by the author.
|Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-2012. Steel rebar (38 tons). Photo by the author.|