Reviewed: Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario, August 17-October 27 2013
In 2011, ArtReview magazine named Ai Weiwei the most influential person in the art world (he beat out the likes of Larry Gagosian for the honour), and though he’s effectively been under house arrest since 2011, when authorities in China took away his passport, he remains engaged in the world in a big way through social media and the Internet. He’s most often described as an activist, a renegade, a pop star, and indeed, he is all of these things. But what struck me most about the works on display at the retrospective “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”, which opens to the public on August 17, was the depth of humanism that resonates in his work.
Drawing from a deep well of traditional craftsmanship, and firmly grounded in the ins and outs of contemporary art, Ai’s works speak volumes to his concern for his fellow countrymen. The most immediate examples of this deep concern are the works created around the topic of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Several make an appearance in this show, including Straight (2008-12), an undulating mass of 38 tonnes of straightened rebar collected by Ai and his colleagues from buildings that collapsed during the quake. The massive piece resembles the shifting earth of the quake, pays homage to a seismograph’s recording of such an event, while at the same time resonates with the fragility of human construction.
The 2008 quake marked a shift in Ai’s work, as beautifully illustrated in the 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Stunned at the images he saw on television of the devastation, he travelled to the area affected to help. Struck by the government’s refusal to acknowledge their culpability in the massive loss of life – many of the collapsed building were of sub-standard “tofu” construction – and further angered by the lack of transparency of the state in providing something as fundamental as death toll figures, he began to collect names of children who perished. Two of the resulting works are found in this exhibition – Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, 2008–11, and Remembrance, 2010. Names manifests as a wall of inkjet printouts of the names of over 5000 dead children, and Remembrance is an audio recording of volunteers reading out the names. The result is more memorial than art piece, but this is certainly the point.
The show is a retrospective, so works from all periods of Ai’s career are represented. The photographs of the years he spent living, studying, and working in New York City are a treat, as are his more cheeky works like the Study of Perspective series (1995-2003), in which he offers a one finger salute to a selection of important political and national sites around the world. Nothing like giving the finger to Tiananmen Square to rile-up the CCP.
The exhibition was first mounted at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo in 2009 and was curated by the Museum’s chief curator Mami Kataoka, with the assistance of the AGO’s contemporary curator Kitty Scott. Toronto is the exhibition’s only Canadian stop. The AGO will be staging a similar performance of Remembrance on Sunday August 18th.