Below are thoughts from Sarah Green, curator of the Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, open as of April 5. Below Green’s quotes are descriptions for all of the art pieces photographed on the scene at the IMA’s April 4 media preview. For more on the artist, see this month’s Culture Counter preview.
On why the IMA pursued this exhibit: “His work is something I’ve been following since 2003-04, when the Chinese contemporary art became worldly renowned. The IMA is an apt location because we’re an encyclopedic museum. We have art from many different periods and cultures, and we have an amazing Asian collection and a really strong contemporary program.”
As to Ai’s subject matter in his art: “His work also depicts activism and desire to acknowledge and memorialize the individual, his manifest in China.”
About Ai’s progress as an artist: “He started with painting in the ’80s when he lived in New York. His work showed evolution while in New York by making works using everyday items.”
For those seeing Ai’s work for the first time: “These are very seductive commissions. There is a very easy entry into the work because a lot of them are very impressive.”
On Ai’s penchant for pushing the proverbial envelope: “It is certainly possible to be offended, but hopefully viewers can get beyond that when they read more about his work and understand why he does [those works].”
About Ai’s backstory: “From a very early age, you can say his life has been political. His father was a famous poet, and his family was exiled during the cultural revolution for his father’s ideas. So this questioning of authority has been a part of him from the very early age. But in his art, you really see a shift after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when he visited that area and began his project to gather the names of the schoolchildren who died.”
Notes on the images appearing above:
The conceptual work Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase depicts the artist himself destroying a 2,000-year-old vase through a series of three pictures. The work challenges traditional values of Chinese culture through iconoclasm, the purposeful destruction of cultural and religious icons.
In Ai’s piece Colored Vases, the artist took antique vases from the Han Dynasty and dipped them in industrial paint. This work challenges the values and meaning of original artwork. Sarah Green, the curator of the IMA show, suggests that Ai’s media and mediums changed from paint and canvas to everyday items after he moved to New York City and experienced work by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Marcel Duchamp.
“[Ai’s] work is very seductive,” says Green. “[He] commissions very fine craftsmen to create them. A lot of the wooden sculptures are made by traditional joinery techniques, no glue or nails. It is very important to him to highlight the special skills of the artisans that he is working with.”
Adorning two walls of the second room of the exhibit are numerous black and white photos taken by Ai, covering several different genres and topics.
Brain Inflation, consisting of two X-rays taken in 2009, depicts a brain hemorrhage that the artist suffered after a physically violent encounter with police in the Sichuan province. He discovered the hemorrhage during a trip to Munich, Germany, where he underwent emergency brain surgery.
An untitled sculpture made of stools is one of many sculptures on display in the Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibit.
“He is a provocateur in many senses,” says Green. “The fact that the exhibition title is a question, According to What?, really brings that out. He is trying to make you think about things and ask questions.” These photographs are a part of a larger series titled Study of Perspective, in which Ai uses his middle finger, instead of his thumb, to gather a perspective of objects. However, the objects are mainly symbols of power. Says Green, “A lot of his work is very critical of China and the Chinese government. These pieces show his questions of structures of power all over the world.”
Included here are three works that all center on the Sichuan earthquake’s young student victims, whose lives were taken when schools collapsed. Straight uses 38 tons of salvaged “rebar” (reinforcing bar) from the rubble. Names of Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen’s Investigation is a list of more than 5,000 names of the known victims (the investigation remains ongoing), and Remembrance is a voice recording of all the names being read. That piece runs 3 hours, 41 minutes in length.
Tea House, one of Ai’s more subtle pieces, involves solid block houses made of compressed tea leaves, and “grass” surrounding the houses is made of loose tea leaves. The piece means to evoke the imagination of the viewer to depict the insides rather than observe the outsides.
The entry and exit ways to the gallery are covered with photographs by Ai of landscapes depicting Chinese industrialization.
Album photos by Michael Schrader; featured image courtesy Ai Weiwei.