“How does he manage to do it?” One wonders. It’s not just that Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei can work with media as varied as cast iron, steel rebar, porcelain, wood, or Legos, but that somehow the finished works are beautifully crafted and always embedded with carefully considered layers of meaning. The exhibition Natural State at Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park brings an impressive cross-section of his recent work to the heart of America’s Midwest, and amply demonstrates Ai’s uncanny knack for seamlessly integrating craftsmanship with concept.
Within the park’s suite of traditional exhibition galleries are variations some of the artist’s most iconic works. Here we’ll find the imposingly large black-and-white photographic triptych of Ai irreverently dropping an actual Han dynasty urn, for example. But step in close and the seemingly crisp photographic images reveal themselves to be illusory; they’re actually comprised of thousands of greyscale Legos. Strategically positioned in front of the triptych is an ensemble of original Han Dynasty urns dipped in shiny, metallic auto paint. The deliberately tacky result is the visual equivalent of nails screeching across a chalkboard. But as conceptual art, the ensemble certainly works; by appropriating the color palettes of Mercedes and BMW, the urns subtly speak to global consumer culture.
Outside the principal gallery spaces, the hallways are lined with display cases holding smaller works. These feature crafted porcelain, such as a puzzle-map of China hand-painted in the style of the imperial Qing Dynasty. The notion of China as a conglomerate of separate parts is a motif that frequently seems to occur in his art (his Iron Tree in the garden’s permanent collection is a unit comprised of 99 visually disparate castings of elements from different trees).
These porcelain works range from the beautiful to the macabre. One case contains convincingly realistic trompe-l’œil fragments of what appear to be human bones, making a disturbing reference to the harsh realities of the “re-education” camps in which Ai (the son of famous poet who landed on the wrong side of the China’s Cultural Revolution) spent much of his childhood.
A series of kites adds a sense of levity and playful whimsy to an otherwise politically-driven show, and hang suspended from the ceiling. These are better described as sculptures in the round. Skillfully hand-crafted with bamboo and silk, these kites represent creatures from an ancient Chinese mythological text (look for the six-legged Dijiang, known, appropriately enough, as being an agile dancer).
This line of kites leads viewers to the park’s suite of greenhouses, where Ai’s sculptures enjoy ample breathing room amid Victorian, arid, and tropical gardens. Here, locating his art becomes a bit like a game of hide-and-seek. Most of his garden works are comparatively small abstract porcelain forms, but a monumental urn flaunts the versatility of the medium.
Even in the tranquil space of the greenhouses, Ai’s work still manages to deliver resonant political commentary. A large slab of Tofu (actually porcelain) is an oblique reference to the shoddy “tofu construction” of the schools that collapsed in the 2008 earthquake that shook Sichuan province. Much of Ai’s activism has focused on calling awareness to the government’s culpability in allowing the schools to be built so poorly. It’s a tragedy Ai also directly references in an ensemble of gnarled, twisted rebar, somewhat incongruously located in the park’s Victorian greenhouse.
Having seen Ai Weiwei’s sprawling show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014, it was nice to encounter his work again, but this time in the smaller, more intimate setting of Meijer Gardens. Both exhibitions solidified my admiration for his work. His content is meaningful, provocative, and beautifully crafted. Even the wooden display cases that hold his porcelain works are themselves works of art, each assembled using a traditional Chinese furniture-making technique that doesn’t use screws or nails. And the 81 days Ai spent in a Chinese prison in 2011 (and the years of house-arrest that followed thereafter) certainly lends an undeniable authenticity to both his art and activism.
Andy Warhol, one of Ai Weiwei’s artistic heroes famously said that everyone is bound to get fifteen minutes of fame. Ai is certainly riding the crest of his. And as I ambled through the park’s greenhouses, I couldn’t help but wonder if his body of work will stand the test of time. I’m likely too new to the world of art criticism to accurately make such predictions, and I’m certainly too much of a fan of the artist to be objective, in any case. But I’d like to think, at least, that it probably will.