Ai Weiwei is a 56-year-old artist confined to his home in Beijing for creating work critical of the Chinese government and Chinese culture. There are video cameras outside his house, his phone lines are tapped, his blog was deleted, his Shanghai studio was destroyed in 2010 by authorities, and his passport was confiscated in 2011. To this day, he’s unable to leave his country. Even so, Ai Weiwei has had a large presence in Toronto over the past few months.
This past June, he did a performance piece with artist Laurie Anderson during the Luminato Festival, using Skype. His Zodiac Heads have been installed, temporarily, in the reflecting pool in front of City Hall. At this year’s Nuit Blanche, a large-scale version of his sculpture of bicycles, Forever, will take over Nathan Phillips Square. And beginning August 17, the Art Gallery of Ontario is displaying “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”, a retrospective of the work he produced before and after the Chinese government’s crackdown on his activities helped him find new international acclaim.
“This is a profound and important moment for the AGO,” said Director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum. Teitelbaum stressed that “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”—a traveling exhibit that had its world debut in Tokyo in 2009—is not about celebrating the spectacle of a highly recognizable art star, but about showcasing great and meaningful art. Though the name Ai Weiwei will instantly draw a crowd (especially after the success of the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which will be screening as part of the exhibit), and his persona is now inextricably woven into his artwork, the pieces in “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” are still extremely evocative on their own.
The beginning of the exhibit is dedicated to man himself. 258 Fake, named after his Beijing studio, inundates the visitor with thousands of images of Ai Weiwei, his work, Ai Weiwei installing his work, and so on. The experience is much more encompassing and intimate than any you’ll get by following his Instagram feed or watching him on Skype (which is how most of us encounter him here in North America). Later on in the exhibit is a series of photos Ai Weiwei took in New York City between 1983 and 1993, when he became inspired by the work of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The juxtaposition between those photos and the more recent ones illustrates the fragility of freedom.
Walking past the screening of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, we heard a Chinese art blogger describing Ai’s ability to articulate his messages through various materials. “It’s impossible to miss the meaning,” she said. As we explored the exhibit, that statement began to seem more and more true—and not only in the case of some of the simpler pieces, like the Study of Perspective series, for which Ai photographed himself giving the finger to monuments like the White House, the Eiffel Tower, and Tiananmen Square. His use of materials important to Chinese history—like tea, porcelain, wood from Qing Dynasty temples, and ancient vases and urns from the Han Dynasty—tells one half of the story; his irreverence for those sacred objects tells the other. Some of his works, like a wall filled with the names of over five thousand children killed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, require almost no interpretation at all.
Ai Weiwei is ruled by boundaries and surveillance, but this exhibit absolutely isn’t. There are no velvet ropes marking barriers between the observer and the stuff—one is almost moved to break the gallery’s laws against touching artwork, even though AGO security guards are constantly on the watch. Will you try for contact, or will you fall in line?
“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is a compelling look at the man and his life’s work, and the AGO’s location next to Chinatown and fiercely independent Kensington Market makes the exhibit particularly well suited to its venue. Considering Ai Weiwei’s groundbreaking presence on social media, we would have loved a more interactive complement to the art. Even so, this show shouldn’t be missed.