How a list of names can land you in jail: Ai Weiwei’s ‘According to What?’ to open at Brooklyn Museum
I hear people ask: is Ai Weiwei an artist or an activist? At his art exhibit, “According to What?” the activism strikes you. He raises awareness of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake through his responsive outputs, which will go on display this April at the Brooklyn Museum. One wall displays a chilling list with the names of school children lost in the tragedy. A massive installation of roiling rebar called “Straight” dominates the room, illustrating both the destruction of buildings and the undulating power of the land. His documentary captures images of the countryside immediately after the event.
Where things get really interesting is in the response to Weiwei’s art. In the U.S., his creations expressing the impact of the 2008 earthquake are examined, appreciated and embraced. In China, this is not the case. We see Chinese government representatives blocking the documentary film cameras because they don’t want the earthquake images captured. And we learn that they definitely don’t want Weiwei to tally up the loss of life. As a result of this body of work, he’s been subjected to police persecution. The artist was hit over the head by the police (suffering a brain hemorrhage in the process), his blog has been taken down from the internet and he’s been placed under arrest. What really hits me is the duality of Weiwei’s commitment to commenting on Chinese culture and politics through his art, and the Chinese government’s commitment to suppress the same. Here is an artist who is risking his life and liberty for art, much like his father did a half century ago. He is someone intimately aware of the dangers faced through expression in a communist state, and who is not backing down.
The exhibit includes a number of quotes by Weiwei; one that stands out is, “The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight.” It, like the related pieces, challenges us to find purpose and resolve, even in the face of intimidating opposition.
Due to the size of the individual installations, the exhibit feels smallish in number of pieces but those present achieve depth and resonance with the viewer. My particular favorites were the “Moon Chests” and the New York photographs. I wasn’t particularly fond of the graphic chicken intestines ceramic piece, although I appreciated the quality of the ceramics work.
I was disturbed by the destruction or alteration of antiquities through the pieces “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” and “Colored Vases,” but this was the point. The disruptive pieces were created through the premise that by altering or destroying past art, we can create new art and new perspectives on the world. I believe the goal was accomplished; however, I’m still cringing as I write this.
Some critics argue that Ai Weiwei’s outputs are more activism than art. I say go to the Brooklyn Museum to see his work in person. Appreciate the art and learn about the related social issues. No one should be under arrest for having a different opinion from the leading political party, so this artist deserves support. China may feel a world away from Brooklyn but the artistic suppression against Ai Weiwei affects us all. He may not be allowed to travel outside of China but his works speak loudly and clearly on important issues, and they demand your attention.
The exhibition will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from April 18 through August 10 of this year. For more information, visit www.brooklynmuseum.org.
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