Ai Weiwei According to What?

Mami Kataoka, Kerry Brougher, Charles Merewether
Ai Weiwei: According to What?
(Prestel Verlag, 2012)

Visitors to the Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D. C. are offered two varied forms of learning additional information: a traditionally produced hardcover book ($39.95) and a double-stapled magazine format ($5). Beyond an omitted index and curriculum vitae, there is little difference in the less costly version other than distribution and physical constituent parts. You can only purchase the magazine format at the exhibition. Is there a preference? According to a museum shop employee, the hardcover has sold approximately 500, while the magazine, says the Hirshhorn press officer, has been reordered after exceeding the expectation of selling the initial printing run of 10,000. All of this is to say that the exhibition is extraordinarily popular and timely . The catalog formats readily evoke the complexities of information flow between the United States and China, and may be seen as modeled after Ai Weiwei’s collaborative underground distribution of Black, White and Grey cover artist books in the Chinese art world in the late 1990s. Greg Lindquist and Mary Mattingly read the catalogue before visiting the Hirshhorn Museum exhibition.

Greg Lindquist: Ai Weiwei’s angular, blocky forms of American Minimalism seem to rely on a recontexualization with China’s cultural histories. For example, Ai Weiwei uses a cube made of rosewood, a favored material of traditional Chinese artisans, or arranges glass crystals into a cube of light. Both recall formal strategies used by Donald Judd, among others.

You have some misgivings about the role of these forms in relationship to American art history and culture. Do you think these sculptures are pandering to our nostalgia for this time in art history or our cultures’ love for the perfection of this Ikea-like reductionist design?

Mary Mattingly: Yes, I found this work to be heavily dependent on our knowledge of the work of artists like Judd, Andre, Holt, and Morris, to name a few. Perhaps Ai Weiwei saw it as a way for the art world to couch the political content and charged materials he uses in art. Or maybe it was a response to China’s own process of industrialization (as Minimalism is said to be partly a response to industrialized factory production in the U.S.). Critical to understanding the politics of Minimalism are the questions that were being asked through the works of participating artists about assembly-line fabrication and materiality through increasing mass production in the U.S. and the Vietnam War.

Unlike past works by Ai Weiwei (such as “Sunflower Seeds,” 2010) where the relationship between forms of production, material, and the message of his work resonate with me, I had to reconcile the use of Minimalist tropes with materials that are steeped in dynastic histories or tragic current events. Ai Weiwei’s work in this exhibition becomes formally reliant on these tropes and therefore disconnected from the potent meaning of his materials and the stories behind them.

I don’t think that you felt this way. I think you wanted to come away with the greater messages of his work and therefore didn’t get caught up in the same details I did, would you agree?

Lindquist: I experienced the forms and the content simultaneously without as much conflict about the derivation you speak of. Broadly, Minimalism was as much about artists exerting the power of a physical object as it was about a search for ideal forms and purity. It was about removing the narrative from the experience of the object, as well as emphasizing formal elements of repetition and symmetry. Of course, the deeper one goes in examining Minimalism, the more contradictions and complexities are imminent.

Yet, for these reasons, Ai Weiwei’s homage to Minimalism is an effort of recontexualization and strategy in order to critically question tradition in China. He also intends to fully reinstate narrative to these geometric forms. I think it was the most successful the more immediate the viewer’s relationship to the material and its inherent narrative. For example, “Snake Ceiling,” (2009) the sculpture memorializing with almost identical backpacks the more than 5,000 students who died in the Sichuan earthquake, was extremely powerful. Also, “Teahouse,” (2011) the Monopoly-like cube of compressed tea, was pan-sensory. You could actually smell it as well as physically and visually experience it.

Even more formidable were Ai’s various attempts to destroy or transform various authentic vase and urn artifacts. Whether he was breaking them or painting them with Coca-Cola labels, they were visceral and offensive, an act of cultural defiance. The works are more immediate the more transparent the signifiers are, too. But, maybe also the most memorable work Ai has done has no centralized form, such as “Fairytale,” (2008) in which he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Germany for Documenta 12.

On the other hand, the work that felt the most flaccid was “Moon Chest,” 2008, which was a clever contemplation of lunar phases, but so politely stated and overtly crafted with intricate inlays. It resembles a lot of work prevalent in recent New York institutional shows. Ai’s woodwork on the inner ring of the Hirshhorn seamlessly blended into the museum’s permanent collection. At one point, I mistook a Barbara Hepworth sculpture for another Ai work, which was a problematic aspect of presentation.

Having acknowledged your skepticism, can you say what work had the most impact and why?

Mattingly: When political artwork such as this is institutionalized and purchased by U.S. museums I can’t avoid being more interested in the current power dynamics between the U.S. and China and, furthermore, the back seat democracy inherently takes to capitalism. The object-based work in the exhibition is heavily reliant on Ai Weiwei’s stories of political activism and tragedies in China. While the personal stories behind his work are alarming, powerful, and even empowering, I wasn’t moved by the work itself. My favorite piece in the exhibition itself was the book documenting his blog, Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006 – 2009 a window into the life of Ai Weiwei through blog entries (until it was shut down by the government in 2009), which brings his activism to the forefront.

Lindquist: Wait, that book was in the exhibition?

Mattingly: Yes, in the inner ring on a table with other catalogues.

The According to What? catalogue was more thorough than the exhibition could be, though. It depicted pieces like “Installations for Venice Biennale” in 2008 (in collaboration with Herzog and de Meuron), and “Through,” (2007 – 08) with tables and parts of beams and pillars from dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty: abstract interpretations of architecture gone wrong that were experiential and impactful, as well as a brief description of “Fairytale” at Documenta. The catalogue also documents two collections of fragments of stone Buddha sculptures the artist amassed in 2003 titled “Hands” and “Feet” from the Northern Wei and Northern Qi Dynasty displayed on thick blocks of wood, poetic and understated. 

What did you enjoy most about reading the essays and interviews inside of the exhibition catalogue?

Lindquist: In re-reading much of the text after the show and our debates about the role of Minimalism, I grew tired of the overt imposition of the American art historical narrative on Ai’s work, which tried to also align with the time he spent in New York in the 1980s. As the photographs attest, this time had little to do with Minimalism of the 1960s and reveal more of the political climate of that time. The catalogue also downplays the influence of Dada and the idea of postmodern appropriation.

At the heart of the catalogue was an Ai interview with Kerry Brougher that was excellent. The interview was so dense and potent that the Hirs hhorn reconfigured it into an artist statement for the exhibition. Ai is serious and intense, and his voice is philosophical in tone and ambitious in scope. I was inspired by Ai’s discussion of the Internet as not only a tool, but also a condition of life that has much unrealized potential for art and political change.

Ai also has a good sense of humor, such as in the “Study of Perspective” series in which he extends his middle finger to the Eiffel Tower, White House, and Tiananmen Square. Of course, there are critical implications in each of those images, they are not simply one-line jokes. Maybe we Americans love that defiant attitude directed at ourselves and especially a t China. For example, in the political debate of the last election, both Obama and Romney agreed there was a need to have China play by certain economic rules of trade, but little acknowledgment of our continued dependency on China for manufacturing. In that sense, Ai Weiwei may be seen as a sort of American hero and martyr against Chinese oppression and censorship, but this posture also serves certain economic and political motivations for us.

Mattingly: I agree, he does claim to be a brand for liberal thinking and democracy and it does seem like his role could easily become that of a martyr figure for a United States wrestling with its own position as a superpower that needs China economically while being simultaneously undermining and wary . A conceptual thread running throughout the exhibition and catalogue is one of destruction and rebuilding, a cycle repeated anywhere there is opportunity for a rush of development, something that the housing boom in the United States shares with China’s megacities-to-be. Ruins are not nostalgic but rather the motivation for newer, larger building projects, cities, and in this case, artworks.

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Greg Lindquist

GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.

Mary Mattingly

MARY MATTINGLY is an artist, reader, and writer who shares a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with Greg Lindquist. They met at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council exhibition space at Governors Island in 2010, thanks to Melissa Levin and Omar Lopez-Chahoud.