At the Brooklyn Museum
According to What?
April 18–August 10, 2014
Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most prolific and provocative contemporary artists. Featuring over forty works spanning more than twenty years, Ai Weiwei: According to What?explores universal topics of culture, history, politics, and tradition, showcasing the artist’s remarkably interdisciplinary career as a photographer, sculptor, architect, and activist.
These works spotlight issues of freedom of expression, as well as individual and human rights both in China and globally. Many use minimal forms and methods, while others manipulate traditional furniture, ancient pottery, and daily objects in ways that question cultural values and challenge political authority.
This series consists of Han dynasty vases dipped in industrial paints. The faded, richly patterned surfaces of the vases are concealed by the bright modern colors, but the vases retain their original forms. By leaving the vases intact and only altering their surfaces, Ai asks viewers to consider questions of authenticity and the value and meaning of an original artwork.
This sculpture is a map of China made of salvaged wood and built using traditional Chinese woodworking techniques. The work can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a map of China, it symbolizes the political unity of a country made up of many different cultural and historical elements. The monumental scale of the work and the impossibility of viewing its complete outline from one perspective perhaps reflect the difficulty of grasping the full complexity and vastness of China.
In He Xie, Ai metaphorically represents the restriction of individual expression and freedom of speech in Chinese society. He xie, literally “river crab,” also sounds like the word for “harmonious,” which is part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan “The realization of a harmonious society.” He xiehas thus come to refer to online censorship and the restriction of individual freedom of expression in Chinese society.
In November 2010, Chinese authorities announced that Ai’s new studio in Shanghai would be demolished. In response, Ai invited guests via Twitter to a feast of ten thousand river crabs to protest the government’s control of information. Placed under house arrest for his actions, he was unable to attend his own feast.
This installation represents part of a series of eighty-one unique chests built from huali, the precious and highly desirable wood of the Chinese quince tree. The artist has cut four circular openings into each chest, transforming them from functional pieces of furniture into works of art. When the chests are viewed through the center from one end, the openings align to create a play of light and shadow that suggests the phases of the moon.
In Straight, Ai uses rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The artist had every piece of mangled rebar straightened through a laborious process. The large divide in the piece is meant to suggest both a fissure in the ground and a gulf in values. The massive work serves as a reminder of the repercussions of the earthquake and expresses the artist’s concern over society’s ability to start afresh “almost as if nothing had happened.”