China has given rise to one of the world's great artists ... too bad they don't know what to do with him.
I wish everyone could go, at least in the next couple of months, if only to take in the opening exhibit of work by Ai Weiwei (who also served as artistic consultant for that olympic stadium). I went with an open mind, but honestly knew only two things about his life and work: (1) That he was famously arrested and "detained" by Chinese authorities for his outspoken social views. (2) That he deliberately broke a valuable Han Dynasty vase in a work of conceptual art. But I stuck around and soon found I was having an experience that went beyond the aesthetic and penetrated some higher realm.
My first clue that we were in for something different came before we even got inside. The sculpture garden featured twelve tall bronzes featuring all the animals that give names to the Chinese lunar years. This prompted us all to look up a calculator online and find out what animals we were. (Me: boar or pig. I prefer the boar.) This ran so counter to anything I expected that I felt sure more surprises were in store.
Inside, the vase incident was represented in the form of three larger than life photos of Weiwei demonstrating the before, during, and after of the dropping of said artifact and its reduction into fragments. I was struck by the look on his face, impassively straight on into the camera, at once confronting, questioning, daring you to react. Do you react differently knowing the economic value of the object? Its age and history? Exactly why is that? And is not the future continuously destroying the past in the shattering of the present moment?
So you see there is always a subtext to this body of work. It's a text that grows and reflects on itself the more you absorb. It is, in addition to everything else, literary in nature.
Perhaps it's no accident that Weiwei has become known equally through the statements he has published through social media. These were representing in a silent, endlessly repeating montage on a screen in the spacious theater (incorporated brilliantly alongside a majestic flight of stairs leading to the second floor gallery). We quickly found we had to take seats, the better to appreciate the content. One by one, the aphorisms -- sayings? sound bites? tweets? -- built into a rambling monologue about freedom and human dignity, and the impossibility of keeping it forever contained. This is the very stuff that landed him in so much trouble. I got a kick out of what he says they kept asking him in detention: "Weiwei, how did you get like this?" The picture conjures up Winston Smith deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Love, only perhaps this time there is a happy ending. Ai Weiwei is still at liberty, and still at odds with the powers that be in his native land.
I could have sat there for a very long time, but eventually an urge to see the work overcame me. Besides the vase there was a selection of ninety other photos taken during the ten years he spent in New York City in the 1990s. He loved "every inch" he says, and described it as "a monster." Included is a wonderful photo of Ai with Alan Ginsberg, both seated in identical meditative postures. Ginsberg, who did a lot to bring the East to us back in the '50s, had the East come right back at him. He had traveled to China and met Weiwei's father, Ai Qing, who was a noted poet, so the son was returning the visit. "When I got home from New York," Ai says, "I had no degree, no wife, and no money. From the Chinese perspective it was a complete failure."
As for the other pieces, I think they can best be described by sets of directions you would have to follow to recreate them ...
- You know that Chinese tea that comes pressed into little bricks in the shape of a house? Make a few of them, but 1 meter square, and arrange them on a field of tea leaves.
- Assemble a dense block of hardwood taken from some old destroyed temples about five feet tall and wide, then carve the outside of it so it assumes the shape of an extruded map of China. For extra credit, add a couple of freestanding columns beside it to represent islands. For even more extra credit, hollow out the center of a twelve foot long log in the same shape.
- The "pearl of great price" is an archetype for the value placed on something rare and unique. What if you make it a cultured pearl? Ok, how about collecting enough of those to fill a huge bowl about 1 meter across? Then, just to show there's nothing unique about that, put another one beside it.
- Since that broken vase was so shocking, how about collecting some other ones, then painting the Coca-Cola logo on them? Hey, they're not broken, so what are you complaining about?
- Since you're so upset about vases, how about taking a bunch of antique three-legged stools, cutting their seats a bit so they sort of melt into one another, and making an arching spherical shape out of them with legs radiating outward in all directions.
- Think of a surveillance camera. Yes, we all know what they look like. Now make one, actual size --. out of marble. For extra credit, also make a hard hat and a piece of twisted rebar out of marble.
- Ah yes, the rebar. Lets say you get incensed about something like, say, the collapse of a lot of poorly built schools that claimed the lives of over five thousand children in an earthquake. Besides complaining to the authorities, go and collect tons of twisted rebar from the debris of the schools, then hire a crew to laboriously straighten them out by bending and striking each piece hundreds of times with a hammer, by hand of course. Then carefully sort them by size and arrange them on the floor in a pleasing rectangular pile that seems to evoke the shape of waves. Call it "Straight." For extra credit, display on a wall nearby the names and dates of birth of the five thousand children.
So you get the idea. It goes on, a wonderful imagination at work in a wonderful mind, being put to wonderful uses. Sculptor, photographer, social activist, philosopher -- dare we add poet? I came away with a powerful impression of a truly world-scale talent, equally at home making Chinese double-entendre out of crabs and internet censors as in making allusions to Andy Warhol.
I came away feeling that this guy is the real deal, and in his way might be a harbinger of real change soon to come. Do you remember when we all thought the Soviet Union would be around forever? Then something happened.
Weiwei poses this intriguing question: "What if the system of hate all around you suddenly disappeared one day and it was because of things you did. Would you be excited?" Forget China for a moment, and ask this question about wherever you are.
I leave you with this glimpse inside a forest of bicycles -- all identical, all the same Chinese brand ("Forever"), conjuring up images of those Mao-era streets full of cycling commuters, an era that is passing now as everyone buys cars. They're assembled together geometrically, shaped to tower over you and surround you. You can step within and become lost in the machine. You can almost hear the ball bearings in the spinning wheels. But they're not spinning.