Celebrated dissident Chinese multimedia artist Ai Weiwei is making another splash in the art scene. His show, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” will open this Sunday in the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. The kicker is that he will not be able to attend, as the Chinese authorities have banned him from leaving the country.
Named 2011’s most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview, Ai has a huge following. His rise to fame was his politically charged blog, which was shut down by the Chinese authorities in 2009. He continues to voice his thoughts on Twitter and through his exhibitions. In 2010, the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall was home to Sunflower Seeds, an exhibition of which put him on the international art map. He is the star of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a documentary by Alison Klayman released this year. You may remember him for his work on the iconic Chinese National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, better known as the Bird’s Nest.
“According to What?” is the first survey of Ai’s work to open in North America. The exhibition is a combination of old as well as new work. Some of the more controversial pieces on display are made of real Chinese artifacts that were painted over or deconstructed. Ai’s work demonstrates his irreverence for history. One of the pieces, "Coca-Cola Vase" (2007), is a painted over Qing Dynasty vase, and another, “Kippe” (2006) is made of wood dismantled from Qing Dynasty temples.
Ai is a critic of China’s social, political, and cultural systems, and you can see this though his work. Last year he was put under house arrest for 81 days, supposedly for tax evasion, and according to Ai, continues to be watched. Ai believes his arrest was politically motivated, and has little to do with taxes.
His art is provocative because it blends Eastern and Western aesthetics, challenges the status quo in China, and criticizes the individual’s relationship with art, culture, politics, and society. No medium is off-limits for Ai. His installations utilize everything from porcelain crabs ("He Xie" (2010)), Qing-era stools ("Grapes" (2012)), shattered artifacts ("Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1995/2009)), and bicycles ("Forever" (2003)). Not only does Ai distort furniture, ancient pottery, and everyday objects, he does so in a way that makes the viewer question societal norms and political authority. What makes his art unique is that anyone can relate to it. It’s simple, but speaks to each member of the audience.
Ai is stifled by the Chinese government for speaking out against the country’s democracy and human rights issues. This week, Ai published a notice sent to him by Chinese commerce officials notifying him of a plan to revoke his design firm license. Because officials confiscated his business documents, it is impossible for Ai’s firm to reregister this year.
Ai’s work is a collision of art and politics. It’s original, thought provoking, and current. DC is lucky to see it.