Wednesday, September 18, 2013

AGO: Ai Wei Wei According to What Exhibit

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is known as much for, if not more for, his politics than his art.  He even acknowledges this himself, with his quote that “Art is Politics and Politics is Art”.This fact is immediately apparent when viewing the AGO's exhibit Ai Weiwei According to What.  Several works of art comment on the 2008 earthquake in the Sichan province, which resulted in the deaths of 90,000 people.  This included over 5000 children who were killed when shoddily  built schoolhouses collapsed.  The pieces act as a scathing condemnation of a corrupt government who skimped on building materials for the schools and then tried to hush up the tragedy.

Black and white photos of the earthquake sites show the debris from the decimated schools, littered with the school children’s backpacks.  It was telling that neighbouring buildings continued to stand undamaged.  The deceptively whimsical snake sculpture which weaves its way along the ceiling of the AGO’s second floor atrium has a sobering message.  It is actually made from children's backpacks, sewn together as a tribute to the children who died in the earthquake.   
Ai gathered up mangled pieces of rusty rebar steel that were insufficient to support the "tofu" schools and melded them together to form an undulating landscape with a great fissure running through the middle.  The sculpture is so heavy that a structural engineer was tasked to find the sturdiest part of the AGO and to certify that it could bare the weight of this piece.

His most overtly defiant work is a direct reaction to the government’s refusal to acknowledge or take accountability for the victims.  He painstakingly compiled the names, ages and other statistics of the children who died in the earthquake and has listed them in a floor to ceiling display that covers an entire wall.  He then had a recording made of people reading out these names, so that they will never be forgotten.

Given his history of outspoken criticism of his homeland, it is a testament to Ai Weiwei's clout and influence that he has not been permanently jailed or otherwise made to "disappear", as is wont to happen to dissidents in China.  You have to admire his bravery and fortitude in face of oppression, which he counters by turning any actions taken against him into more "art".  When he was beaten and arrested over his "citizen's investigation" of the earthquake, he created photographic documentation of the police arresting him, and of the brain scan which showed that they had given him a concussion.  When the government burned down his art studio as punishment, he organized a big "crab-eating" party in protest, since in Chinese, the words for river crab and "harmonious society" sound alike.  When the police put him under house arrest so that he could not attend his own party, Ai created a sculpture made of thousands of porcelain crabs to commemorate the event. 

Ai Weiwei is currently held in China under "house arrest" but he still manages to use social media and send works of arts to shows around the world including the current Venice Biennale.  He has strong support from the western world as demonstrated by the giant cardboard "Free Ai Wei Wei" sculpture that Toronto artist Sean Martindale made of him when he was detained by police in 2011 and went missing for a period of time.

The influence of Ai's 12 year stay in the United States from 1981 through 1993  can be seen, especially in his earlier art.  His black and white photos taken in New York City show his affinity for artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and John Jacobs, whose famous piece called "According to What" was used as the name of the AGO exhibition.  In one photo, the display of paper towels that Ai Weiwei is standing in front of is reminiscent of Warhol's soup cans.  Other western influences can be found in his Coca-Cola vase piece, and his pun-fully named "Chateau Lafite", which takes an empty bottle of the very expensive French wine and wraps a pair of communist China canvas slippers around it.


The piece called "Forever", comprised of 42 bicycles welded together in a circular formation so that one bicycle starts where the next one ends, harkens Duchamp's 1913 work "Bicycle Wheel".  The work also ironically references the Chinese bicycle company called Forever, which once provided the primary mode of transportation in China, but whose business invincibility has since waned with the uptake of automobiles.

Since returning to China, Ai's more recent works focus more on Chinese themes or use traditional Chinese techniques.  The work called "Grapes" combines 40 Qing dynasty wooden stools through traditional joining techniques without the use of nails.  I was initially perturbed that I was too short to see the surface of the piece called "Map of China".  Reading the description of the piece, I realized that this was the point–to show that China is so big that it is "impossible to grasp the vastness and complexity".  One of the most impressive work is "Moon Chest" which allows you to view the various phases of the moon as you walk by the circular openings.

Several of Ai's works highlight his provocative, anti-establishment attitude.  In "Dropping the Urn", a series of black and white photographs show him dropping and smashing a Han dynasty urn.  This is meant to symbolize his quest for change and desire to break with tradition.  "A Study in Perspective" takes it a step further by depicting Ai Weiwei literally giving the middle finger to some of the world's most iconic landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, White House and Tienanmen Square.  At least he is equally irreverent to both the East and the West.


The Ai Weiwei exhibit extends beyond the AGO by installing sculptures of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs around the fountain/skating rink at Nathan Phillips Square.

In the movie Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, it is mentioned that Ai rarely creates his own works anymore, but merely develops the ideas and then subcontracts the actual construction of the pieces.  This made me question what is the definition of an artist.  My question was answered in an excellent lecture on Ai Weiwei, given at the North York Central Library by U of T professor of Asian art and art historian Yi Gu.  One of the topics she covered in her talk related to why Ai's work is considered art and what is the definition of art in general.  Her answer was that contemporary art no longer focuses on the materials, techniques or the execution of art but instead is all about the ideas or concepts.  She also said that the current function of art is to challenge your understanding of and attitudes towards life.  Based on those statements, then Ai Weiwei is definitely a successful contemporary artist.