Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei isn’t known for being subtle. His father, Ai Qing, was a poet-intellectual who landed on the wrong side of the Cultural Revolution and was denounced, publicly humiliated, and sentenced to re-education through forced labor. No surprise, then, that for Ai Weiwei politics are personal. His activism famously led to his arrest in 2011 (officially, he was imprisoned for tax evasion), and he is currently kept under close surveillance at his home/studio where he continues to produce interdisciplinary, politically-charged art.Ai’s first survey exhibition in the United States, According to What?, concludes its North American grand tour with a show at the Brooklyn Museum, on view through August 10. The works in the show span three floors, and demonstrate the extraordinary breadth of Ai’s command of a diverse range of media. Among these are Straight, a massive installation which respond’s to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and S.A.C.R.E.D, a new instillation which is now making its American debut.
Ai has always been controversial, but his art and advocacy became sharply focused when a devastating earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province on May 12, 2008. Many poorly-built ferroconcrete schools collapsed, though surrounding buildings remained intact. Circumventing authorities who were not transparent about the earthquake’s death-toll, Ai turned to social media to launch the Citizen’s Investigation, a crowdsourced initiative to collect the names of all the children who died in Sichuan’s schoolhouses.
For Straight, Ai acquired twisted rebar (the reinforcing bar used in reinforced concrete) from Sichuan’s collapsed schools, which he and his studio assistants heated and meticulously straightened. The scale of the work is striking. Filling the entire gallery space in a long, undulating stack with a fissure running down its center, the rebar evokes both geological and ideological fault lines. Its simplicity and repetition rhyme with minimalist sculpture. Straight emerged from Ai’s frustration at the ease at which society had moved on so swiftly from the tragedy, and it serves as a poignant memorial to the earthquake’s youngest victims.
Also on view is S.A.C.R.E.D., which presents the viewer six large, austere boxes equipped with small windows which viewers can voyeuristically peep into. Inside, Ai recreated the prison cell in which he spent 81 days in 2011, right down to the cobwebs in the corners, and viewers become witnesses to the dreary monotony of Ai’s imprisonment in which he was under constant supervision by two prison guards, even when asleep or using the bathroom.
When it comes to irreverence, Ai has always been an equal opportunist (his Study in Perspective is a series of photographs in which he brandishes his middle finger at many famous buildings and monuments, including the White House). But there is often surprising substance behind the theatrics, and it’s difficult to look at projects like his Citizen’s Investigation and Straight and not instinctively want to take his side.
Ai Weiwei’s website (http://aiweiwei.com/) contains regular news updates, information regarding the ongoing Citizen’s Investigation, and links to his famous twitter feed, which remains very active.