Friday, April 18, 2014

Ai Weiwei in the BK

Moon Chest, 2008. Seven chests in huali wood, each 126"x63"x31.5". Photo: Susan Yung
The Brooklyn Museum's show Ai Weiwei: According to What? is a sweeping look at this provocateur's work, which has been little seen in New York on a large scale. Viewers are immediately confronted with S.A.C.R.E.D., six iron boxes—models of his remembrances from being imprisoned for eight months in China—which block some of the lobby portals. You can step onto a box to peer into a small cutout, making you a voyeur. Inside are half-scale models of Ai in his cell, with guards. It's chilling, if a bit cartoon-like.

Bowls of Pearls (detail), 2006, porcelain bowls (ea. 15"x38.5") filled with
freshwater pearls
. Stockamp Tsai Collection. Photo: Susan Yung
An installation of bicycles is on the ground floor as well; don't miss it like I did, inadvertently. The majority of the show occupies the 4th and 5th floors. There are several ambitious, large-scale installations: Moon Chest, a series of cabinets with holes that, when peered through resemble phases of the moon; Straight, a minimalist field of 38 tons of straightened steel rebar taken from the wreckage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; Snake Ceiling, a deceptively playful serpent made of childrens' backpacks, evoking the 5000+ child fatalities in that quake; He Xie, a mounded dome of 3200 porcelain crabs which allude to state censorship as well as a farewell dinner in advance of the dismantling of his studio; he was prevented from attending. (He served eight months in prison charged with tax evasion.)

He Xie, 2010, 3200 porcelain crabs. Photo: Susan Yung
There is a sense of disconnect throughout the show. Ai's populist ideas are at odds with the luxe materials he uses. They include Han Dynasty vases dipped in bright colors, antique wooden furniture cut apart and reassembled in different forms, building parts salvaged from Olympic domain claims, and bushels of shimmering freshwater pearls. These seductive substances are also part of the allure, for sure. Simply viewed as objects, they are beautifully crafted. But each work has a back story that gives it depth. Then there is his use of quantity as a brickbat. It is a body of work that definitely took great resources—material and labor-wise—to assemble, plus a dash of the hubris needed to create the Great Wall. 

Cube in Ebony is a 40" cube of rosewood, a dense block with a mesmerizing carved surface inspired by a small keepsake box of his father's. A couple of big doghouse-sized Teahouses made of compressed tea sit atop a floor of tea leaves, emitting an evocative fragrance. And Kippe is a rectangular stack of lustrous salvaged wood and decorative architectural elements that recall the obsessive nature of his family's well-stacked pile of firewood.
Kippe, 2006, Iron wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty, iron bar. 71.5"x112.5"x41".Collection of Honus Tandijono.
Photo: Susan Yung

Some of the photographic, video, and smaller works are vaguely reminiscent of familiar late-20th century Russian exiles such as Komar & Melamid and their more recent compatriots who wove Soviet and Russian touchstones into their art. Ai's reputation has grown as his encounters with Chinese authorities became news fodder, in addition to scandals such as lead levels in his ceramic sunflower seed field (Tate) and a vandal smashing one of the Colored Vases in Miami recently. If the former weren't comprising a vast roomful, and the latter an extremely valuable ancient vase, and both put together by a now-oppressed Chinese dissident, would it be self-perpetuating news? But it is the sum total of the opulence, scale, and personal history that does make it news, and worth seeing. Through August 10.

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