On a sunny morning in late September, the great Chinese artist Ai Weiwei sat in the courtyard of his studio in Beijing, lamenting his continued harassment by his country’s authorities. Last year, when they’d detained him for almost three months, they had also taken his passport. Now, with no sign of its return, he wouldn’t be able to travel to Washington for the Oct. 7 opening of his first American survey, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show would be incomplete without him, Ai said, “because my communication with the audience, with the journalists or students or viewers, is not going to be fully there."
But then, in one of his classic moves, he turned the tables on his persecutors: It could be, he said, that the notable absence of an artist from his own opening would have a bigger impact than his presence there ever could. That absence could underscore the daily indignities imposed by a Chinese state that is trying to forge “a new national identity based in culture and humanity,” Ai said, but whose soft-power actions mask an unchanged hard line. “I still think it's very old, cold-war thinking … I think that the thing they are afraid of most is freedom of speech—the spirit of freedom of speech is the number one enemy for a totalitarian society.”
Some of Ai’s art at the Hirshhorn comes close to unsparing—and uncensored—talk about how the real world is viewed in modern China. There’s a 10-hour video of a trip through Beijing, with one minute of footage shot every 50 yards: Its vast stretches of concrete, rubble, pavement and traffic show just how unthinking Chinese development can be. (The video was shot in 2004; from my recent experience in the city, even the grimmer parts of Ai’s footage seem almost quaint compared to Beijing’s metastatic growth since then.) In China, Ai said, “the truth is just so rare, and worse is that the 1.3 billion people who live in this land accept this condition.” His art tries to add a few truths to the total.
Ai’s truth-telling sometimes functions as direct activism. The first wall you encounter in his Washington survey is papered with the names of 5,000 children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, buried under the “tofu-dreg” construction used in their schools—but never acknowledged by China’s rulers. Another piece is merely a recording of their names being read.
An ambitious new work, first seen in this show, continues to commemorate those fatalities. It consists of thousands of lengths of rebar—38 tons’ worth—originally bent in Sichuan’s collapse, then laboriously straightened for use in Ai’s piece. The crude, rusting poles are piled side-by-side in a snowdrift of steel on the floor of the Hirshhorn. They evoke the relentless scale of Chinese construction and its endless need for supplies, and also the Chinese population itself, in its uncountable number; they represent both mass production and the reduction of people into a mass. But mostly they reminded me of mass death—of corpses once distorted and now laid out straight in a mortuary. Straightening all that rebar becomes a poignant, futile effort to undo a tragedy that can’t be undone.
It’s no wonder Ai’s art keeps returning to the slaughter of the children of Sichuan; that’s what first brought him into major conflict with the authorities and launched him on the course he’s now on, in his art and his life. The last work in the Hirshhorn exhibition is a blown-up scan of his brain, shown almost fatally swollen after a beating he received from police in Sichuan in 2009. (He was saved by surgeons in Germany, when he went to show there.)
Rather than feel any regret for the dangerous path he embarked on that year, Ai said he feels that’s when his art really caught fire. He rejects any distinction between the actions he takes and the objects he makes, since both are about paying attention to the world, and being affected by it, and then acting out based on your reactions. “You make the best art when you live by it, and it can communicate with people who don't understand art. Or they can accept it, without knowing they are seeing art,” he explained, sitting pot-bellied and sage-like in the Beijing sun. “I see so many critics who say, 'Ai Weiwei, he's an activist. He's not really an artist.’ I'm so proud of that!—to not be recognized by them."
Heading into Ai's survey, I thought it would let us judge once and for all how his actual art measures up to his skilled politicking. Now I agree that the distinction doesn't hold.
Even some of Ai’s most deluxe, object-driven works have political implications. A number of pieces at the Hirshhorn, including several sculptures shaped like giant maps of China, are made out of lumber salvaged from Qing Dynasty temples that were either destroyed or left to rot under communism, or haphazardly plowed under by development since. The standard take on these works is to see them as condemning the thoughtless obliteration of China’s heritage, which I guess they do. They also may suggest a more subtle concept: That the very notion of Chinese heritage needs deeper thought. After all, the label “Qing Dynasty” covers the vast period from 1644 to 1911, so the use of the term levels out a huge amount of historical accident. Is Ai’s wood supposed to speak about the early days of a great dynasty, or of its death throes at the hands of the modern world?
Ai must know that his use of such vague dynastic dating involves another kind of obliteration, of the subtleties of history; everything that happens in a giant country, across a huge expanse of time, becomes just another phase in the natural unfolding of China’s cultural destiny. When Ai makes the apparently simple statement that he’s using “Qing Dynasty” wood, he’s invoking all the complexities of Chinese history and selfhood.
The same sculptures also conjure up the complications that come with being a superstar artist in China today. The very fact that Ai has the means to gather all this ancient lumber, and then to hire whole teams of skilled artisans to hand-craft it into ambitious works, reveals the economic resources that China’s current crop of artists can appropriate to themselves. (Other lavish pieces in Ai’s show include two yard-wide bowls filled with real pearls and a pile of 3,200 lifelike, hand-made porcelain crabs.) During our interview Ai insisted that “the products that come from here called ‘Chinese art’ are just a circus, with no content,” much like other commodities merely produced in China but conceived in the West. (He’d recently offended many of his peers by writing an opinion piece in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that leveled the same accusation, comparing today’s Chinese art to the empty “ping-pong diplomacy” once practiced by Mao.) “All the artists here so deeply enjoy their well-being, and their superiority as an elite in the society,” Ai complained, knowing perfectly well that he might be tarred with the same brush. He described his Hirshhorn show as one more “made-in-China” product that has landed on the doorstep of Washington’s politicians, and wonders if any of them will take time to see it. “Maybe they can send their children,” he joked.
Ai acknowledges that everything he does now rides piggyback on the international Ai Weiwei brand, but he hopes that his trademark art might function as “a brand for those people who are still desperate to think that freedom is still worth more than any other purchase … I can say that [my brand] is not always comfortable, but it's necessary.”
The survey "Ai Weiwei: According to What" was first seen at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. It runs through Feb. 24 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., before moving on to venues in Indianapolis, Toronto, Miami and Brooklyn.