Monday, November 12, 2012

According to What?

Last week was so full that I never quite managed to write about all the art that filled my time. One of the moments that lifted my spirits was a walk through “According to What?” a retrospective look at the work of Ai Weiwei. Filling an entire floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, the show includes a selection of 98 black-and-white photographs from the Chinese artist’s life in New York from 1983 to 1993; sculptural works incorporating materials as diverse as bicycles, stools, storage chests, pearls, tea, and ancient clay vessels; videos; and many large, inkjet prints applied like wallpaper not only the gallery walls but also covering enough of the floor that visitors are forced to walk on them.

Nothing that I have read about Ai Weiwei gives me any indication of his religious beliefs, or even if he has any. What is clear is that there is no distinction in his mind between his art and his life, and that for him, both life and art have a profoundly moral dimension. As the Directors’ Foreword to the catalog of this exhibition states,
Despite being beaten and detained by Chinese officials in his hotel room in 2009, which resulted in a head injury that ultimately required emergency surgery, as well as his arrest and confinement for eighty-one days in 2011, the artist remains through his art and actions to be an advocate for open dialogue and human rights issues. In his artwork, he continues to raise crucial questions about the right to express and conduct oneself freely, about accountability, and about the value of individual lives.
Many of the artworks in this show are also stunningly, hauntingly beautiful while asking disturbing questions about the complex relationships between old and new, history and progress, creativity and authenticity. Two that reference the map of China are made from dark, sensuous ironwood, reclaimed from Qing Dynasty temples that have been dismantled to make way for the new construction documented in the large inkjet photographs. Another work consists of 16 Han Dynasty vases, dating from about 200 BCE to 220 CE, which the artist has altered by dipping them in ordinary industrial paint. A nearby wall text asks,
So-called creative behaviors always accompany the issue of “authentic” and “original.” It may be the most important core question, whether a work is original or authentic. And this issue may well be the main point for contemporary art. People are looking for something new. But what on earth is something new? And what is the method of making something new? Can it be fake and at the same time authentic?

Near the end of the exhibition, 40 tons of steel rebar are piled along the floor, carefully laid in a pattern that looks like an empty riverbed, or a fissure in the earth. Each of the carefully-straightened pieces was recovered from schoolhouses that collapsed in an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008. Not far away, near the escalators that carry visitors into and out of the exhibit, large sheets of paper that look like a ledger book notes the names, ages, class, and gender of over 5000 child victims of that earthquake as a disembodied voice reads the names aloud.

Ai Weiwei asks deep questions of both art and life. What is real? What is important? What is really worth doing? Whatever the artist may say about his religious inclinations, these are profoundly spiritual questions that all of us must ultimately answer. Lately, Ai Weiwei has been giving his life and his art to discovering the truth about his government's attempts to hide its own activities against its citizens. To what am I giving my life and art?

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