Weiwei's art and outspokenness has landed him in jail in China several times. According to What? provides visitors with an idea of why his works are considered so provocative. His commentary on modern life in China is instantly understandable.
The exhibit begins with two installations that recall the child victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In a recording played on loop, the names of the thousands of victims of the earthquake are read one-by-one. Their names are also written, in Chinese characters, of course, on the wall. Meanwhile, above the names, is a giant, winding "Snake Ceiling" made of backpacks. Speaking about using backpacks as art, Weiwei said this in reference to another backpack sculpture he made for a show in Germany:
The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything. (reference)
Continuing into the exhibit, one realizes that Ai Weiwei wants people to remember: tragedy, history, culture, and more. In two huge photography installations, Weiwei covers floor to ceiling with time lapse photos of two different subjects. One installation features the Bird Nest stadium, a project that Weiwei initially worked on for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The other installation is that of the Chinese countryside as it is razed to make room for new buildings.
Some of Weiwei's best-known art is ironic, in that he destroys representations of China's past to create art as well as make a point about modern life. His photograph series "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" and his painted Han Dynasty vases (both pictured above) express, according to the exhibit catalog, "the notion that new ideas and values are produced through iconoclasm." Another object designed with this notion in mind is an ancient vase emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo.
Other works in "According to What?" employ the use of Chinese cultural icons and/or artistic techniques to create new objects. For example, Ai Weiwei uses an ancient joining technique to create a sculpture out of Qing Dynasty chairs ("Grapes"). Other sculptures include a "Tea House" made of tea leaves (a very aromatic installation), a bowl full of freshwater pearls, and a sculpture of Shanghai "Forever" bicycles, which are connected together to form a circle.
Ai Weiwei's exhibit takes up almost the entire second floor of the Hirshhorn, with additional installations on the third floor and the ground level (Forever bicycles). Outside the museum, around the central fountain, are Weiwei's "Zodiac Heads", sculptures of the heads of all 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Ai Weiwei: According to What? will be on display in Washington, DC, through February 24, 2013. Admission to the Washington, DC, exhibit is free.
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