MUST-SEE | AI WEIWEI’S MONUMENTAL “ACCORDING TO WHAT?” AT THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM
Since being arrested in 2011, China’s most provocative and controversial artist, Ai Weiwei has not ben allowed to leave the country, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t overseen the entire scope of According to What?, his mid-career retrospective that opened at the Brooklyn Museum this month.
Being a target of the Chinese government has made outspoken artist Ai Weiwei one of the best-known contemporary artists in the world. Despite having his passport revoked by the Chinese government, Ai is making presence felt at the Brooklyn Museum through his artwork and a video message.
“To have a show here in Brooklyn but same time, not allowed to attend, it also reflects on my condition,” he says. “And my condition, which is not only mine. It reflects so many regular poets, musicians in the society like China.”
The works on view in the exhibition include both well-known photographs and sculptures and newer creations. One particular item, from 1995, is a series of three black-and-white photographs entitled “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which is one of his most famous works. The series is a direct commentary on the modernization of China and the country’s indifference to its ancient and golden past. Accompanied by these photographs are an actual group of sixteen Han dynasty pots, transformed by the artist with bright-colored dripping paint. The Brooklyn Museum notes, “Chinese antiques are highly valued by the Chinese government, but Ai believes that the government considers contemporary art to be ‘a product of degenerate Western ideology'” and therefore by transforming an antique into a modern-day creation, Ai is questioning the power and value of antiquity. Seemingly, every one of Ai’s works are an attempt to challenge the modern world or art and governance, an attempt to have viewers see themselves and their world in a new light.
S.A.C.R.E.D. is the most recent work on view, shown for the first time in North America after its debut at the Venice Biennale last year. The work is a commentary on his imprisonment in 2011 and features on a monumental scale six iron boxes that within each “contains lifelike fiberglass dioramas of detailed scenes painstakingly reproduced from memory. The work documents and reveals the most painful and intimate moments of Ai’s imprisonment, from periods of interrogation to such daily activities as eating, sleeping, showering, and using the toilet.”
As an activist, Ai has created many of his works in response to the heartache he has seen others go through, and actively sculpts and paints in order to get those stories heard. Stay Home!, for example, is a documentary that is exhibited for the first time about “Liu Ximei, who contracted AIDS as a child after being given an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion at a Chinese hospital.” Another piece, Straight, is another monumental work (weighing in at seventy tons) that features the beams of schoolhouses destroyed in an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008. Tens of thousands of souls were lost as a result of the earthquake, in part because of poor architecture, but this was not advertised by the Chinese media, and Ai was unhappy with the response the government took. Ai personally visited those whose lives were affected by the disaster and documented his research and the stories of the people he spoke with through his art, on film, and blog, which was subsequently shut down by the Chinese government.Straight is composed of beams that were once mangled from the quake, but were straightened out by Ai after a few years of work – a commentary that although a tragic disaster occurred, reconstruction and rebirth is possible.
“I’ve always believed it is essential for contemporary artists to question established assumptions and challenge beliefs. This has never changed.” —Ai Weiwei
“Stay Home!,” A collection of boxes and personal effects named after the Chinese women’s rights activist who was evicted by the repressive regime for supporting equal rights for sex workers and AIDS victims:
“He Xie,” A pile of 3,200 hand-painted porcelain crabs. The Mandarin word means both “river crabs” and “harmonious society,” but also designates the “Gang of Four,” disgraced leaders who were tried in 1981 for treason:
“Snake Ceiling,” About 90,000 people were missing after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake including many young students killed in collapsed schools. The work on the ceiling resembles a giant snake composed of various sized backpacks representing children in elementary through junior high school, “laid out as a requiem for the souls of those who perished in the disaster:
“S.A.C.R.E.D.,” a collection of six dioramas depicting the artist’s 81-day incarceration in 2011:
The streets speak:
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