Ai Weiwei: ‘According to What?’ at the Brooklyn Museum

A survey of the outspoken Chinese artist presents 20 years of his provocative work that blurs the line between art and activism

According to What?” which opens to the public today at the Brooklyn Museum is a sobering, yet sometimes conceptually thrilling survey of the work of Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei. Born into an artistic family (his father was considered one of China’s most famous poets), he was a member of that country’s first group of avant-garde artists. From 1983-93 he lived in New York City, befriending Allen Ginsberg and other local iconoclasts, before returning to Beijing and becoming an outspoken activist against the authoritative government. Recently, he has been turned into something of martyr for freedom of expression by the Chinese Government, who in 2009 smashed his head in, resulting in a brain hemorrhage, jailed him for 81 days in 2011 on trumped up charges of tax evasion, and most recently have unlawfully seized his passport.

Originally organized and curated by Mami Kataoka at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, the show, which marks the first large-scale North American survey of his work, first traveled to museums in Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Toronto, and Miami, before landing at the Brooklyn Museum, its final presentation. Here, Brooklyn Museum curator Sharon Matt Atkins has done a fantastic job working with Weiwei remotely (as he is not allowed to leave China) and his assistants in person to present a number of his newest works as part of the survey. It creates a sprawling and provocative show, presented on three floors, that showcases 20 years worth of his work in sculpture, video, photography, and installation.

Ai Weiwei "Ye Haiyan"

Ai Weiwei “Ye Haiyan”, 2013, Mixed media installation and video, (Photo by the author)

Many of the newly presented pieces are the most political, and in turn, the strongest. One of them is “Ye Haiyan,” named after a women’s rights activist who has been evicted from her home multiple times by the Chinese government for her activities. On one occasion she was forced to pack up all of her belongings in the middle of the night. They, along with her and her child were then dumped on the side of a road. Weiwei’s piece consists of an installation of all of her personal belongings, which the artist compensated her for, re-packed in their original boxes, and photographs cataloging each item displayed as wallpaper.

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008–12. Steel reinforcing bars, dimensions variable.

Ai Weiwei, “Straight”, 2008–12. Steel reinforcing bars, dimensions variable. (Photo by the author)

The piece in the show with the most weight, both psychologically and literally, is “Straight” which in its Brooklyn iteration is composed of 73 tons (nearly twice as many as previously shown) of rusted steel rebar that were salvaged from shoddily constructed schools, toppled in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. While working with other activists to pressure local authorities to release the names of the school children killed in the earthquake, Weiwei bought the completely mangled metal pieces from local markets and had hundreds of workers labouriously hammer them into once again perfectly straight rods. A video of the process plays nearby. The metal rods are arranged atop each other in a large rectangle that covers most of the floor of a large gallery. Shorter pieces are laid on the very top to form a large, organically shaped rift down the center that recalls a fault line in the earth. In the same room covering an entire wall is “Sichuan Namelist,” which displays the names of the thousands who perished in the earthquake, while their names are read aloud. Photographs taken after the quake hang on another wall. In some, workers in white jumpsuits and face masks stand among the rubble. The contrast between their pristine suits and the utter destruction around them is heartbreaking. Both poetic and strongly moving, as single pieces, “Straight” and “Sichuan Namelist” would be among the most successful memorials to a tragedy ever created. Together, with the photographs and video, I can think of none greater.

Ai Weiwei, Sichuan Earthquake Photos

Ai Weiwei, “Sichuan Earthquake Photos”, 2008, 16 inkjet Prints, 20 x 13 5/16 in. (Photo by the author)

The exhibition also includes 15 of the artist’s “Colored Vases,” Han Dynasty vases the artist dipped in colorful industrial paint. As a backdrop to this piece is “Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase,” a triptych of photographs showing Weiwei dropping an undipped piece to the ground, obliterating it. These pieces illustrate, along with many of his earlier works on view, his interest in traditional Chinese craft, and display a confounding mix of veneration and irreverence. The survey originally included 16 of these vases, but, somewhat ironically, one was recently smashed by a local artist in a seeming act of xenophobic protest, while the exhibition was on view at the Pérez Museum in Miami.

Ai Weiwei: Installation view of Top: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. Triptych of Lambda prints, each: 75 3/8 x 70 7/8 in. (191.5 x 180 cm). Bottom: Colored Vases, 2007‒10. Han Dynasty vases and industrial paint, dimensions variable.

Ai Weiwei: Installation view of Top: “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”, 1995. Triptych of Lambda prints, each: 75 3/8 x 70 7/8 in. (191.5 x 180 cm). Bottom: “Colored Vases”, 2007‒10. Han Dynasty vases and industrial paint, dimensions variable. (Photo by the author)

On the first floor are two large scale works, both presented as part of the survey for the first time. “Stacked” consists of over 760 stainless steel bicycles, all attached to one another, forming a giant, floor to ceiling wall of metal which is visually striking, but rather conceptually dull.

Ai Weiwei "Stacked"

Ai Weiwei, “Stacked” (detail), 2012. 760 bicycles, dimensions variable, (Photo by the author)

Much more interesting is “S.A.C.R.E.D,” a work composed of 6 large, tomb like metal boxes approximately 5 feet high and even longer and wider, that were shown last year at the Venice Biennale. While at first they appear as minimalist sculptures in the vein of Donald Judd, with a little snooping one finds that each contains a small door with the number 1135 on it. Once can peek inside them by either standing on a footstool and looking through a small cut out on top, or crouching down on the opposite side and peering through a small window. Inside are detailed dioramas, made from memory, illustrating Weiwei’s time in prison. While they serve to chronicle and protest his false imprisonment, in their creation it’s hard not to see Weiwei knowingly adding to his notoriety and further building his legacy. But who can fault him for this, as it is this notoriety that allows him to function as an artist-activist, to spread both his message and those of others fighting for justice and freedom around the world. His fame, most definitely, is deserved.

Ai Weiwei, R itual (detail), 2011-2013. From the work S.A.C.R.E.D.

Ai Weiwei, “Ritual” (detail), 2011-2013. From the work “S.A.C.R.E.D.”, 2011‒13. One of six dioramas in fiberglass and iron, 148 3/8 x 78 x 60 1/5 in. (377 x 198 x 153 cm), (Photo by the author)

Ai Weiwei: According to What? will be on view through August 10, 2014 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY