Video is from the Brooklyn Museum’s YouTube Channel. Depicts a team of art handlers and studio assistants putting 700 bicycles together to create his site-specific installation Stacked (2014).
The title of Ai WeiWei’s new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is According to What?, which suits the show and the artist himself perfectly because WeiWei and his work are known for their controversy, for constantly pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an artist and an activist in China, a state that, as WeiWei contends, continues to oppress and lie to its people and to its visionaries in every sphere of society. There are several important things to know about WeiWei that are critical to appreciating his art. The first thing is that he has risen to prominence because we are now in the digital age; his mission to improve the life of the Chinese and convey his message of hope through art has flourished because he uses social media to constantly connect to the outside world.
When I entered the exhibit, I discovered that much of it approximated what I had watched in WeiWei’s documentary, Never Sorry. The film chronicles WeiWei’s activism following the tragic 2008 earthquake that killed thousands of Chinese that the artist alleges died partly because of the shoddy “tofu” construction of their government-supplied homes. WeiWei’s investigation culminated in traumatic brain injury and imprisonment, but what is most interesting is that when the blow to his head that caused the damage occurred, WeiWei immediately caused a sensation on twitter by posting a mirror selfie of himself and the officer that hurt him.
At the opening of the show are mini bronze dioramas chronicling WeiWei’s torturous imprisonment, with statues of the guards who followed him everywhere and made him record confessions on their computers. Of note is that each room is designed in the shape of a cross, alluding to the idea that WeiWei is China’s Christ-equivalent, eager to care for his wounded people and heal them while sacrificing himself in the process. Lining the walls of the halls and stairways taking the viewer to and from the exhibition’s floors are panoramic photographs of the earthquake’s aftermath taken by WeiWei and much of which were the cause of his incarceration.
Expanding on this notion is one of the projects completed over the course of making Never Sorry, a wall detailing facts about every single victim of the earthquake, meticulously put together by WeiWei to present actual data, rather than the government’s fabricated facts and propaganda, to the Chinese people so as to inform them and the world how truly tragic this event was.
The melancholy but optimistic mood of the show persists, even in respect to a room filled with the possessions of Ye Haiyan, a feminist activist in China who was evicted from her city apartment in the dark of night by the country’s secret police and dumped from a truck with her daughter and all her possessions on the side of a road. WeiWei came to her rescue and worked with her on photographing all of what she had to take with her. The photos of these items are displayed in rows on the walls of the room. In the room’s center sits a precise replication of the arrangement of Haiyan’s luggage as it was after her capture and abandonment/expulsion.
Overall, According to What? promotes typical WeiWei fare: crude black and white photographs cursing out the motherland whether it be by giving China the finger or purposefully dropping, ‘drip’ painting, and putting the Coca-Cola slogan on extremely valuable Han-dynasty urns. There are also WeiWei’s signature wooden pieces, such as several coffee tables turned on their edge and with parts removed, and gigantic wooden structures that have a kaleidoscope effect when you stare through them. Other photographic images include those of a sick hospital patient holding onto life, a political prisoner in chains, a whole series of photographs of WeiWei’s early, early works from when he had just moved to New York in the 70’s that, if given a literary caption, would simply read as a portrait of the artist as a young man.
I find WeiWei’s work conceptually intriguing. Moreover, his pieces are special not necessarily from an aesthetic perspective, though he is quite exacting in his manufacturing process, but because their origins are in WeiWei’s courage and desire to aid his voiceless people. WeiWei’s art is valuable not because it’s ‘political,’ per say, when it very well is, but because it stresses that if one is committed to a cause, one’s creativity in facilitating or hastening said cause is boundless.