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The International Writers Magazine: Art: Brooklyn Museum

Life As Art
• Walli F. Leff
Art-loving tourists from all over the world fan out through the Upper East Side, Chelsea, and Soho to visit Manhattan’s famed museums and galleries. This spring and summer, however, one of the most powerful and inspiring exhibitions mounted in years can be found across the East River in Brooklyn.

ai weiwei

An expanded version of the show “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” seen in Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Ontario, and Miami is on display at the Brooklyn Museum through August 10, 2014. This moving expression of the thought and work of China’s best-known living artist not only demonstrates Ai’s continuity with the Chinese aesthetic of antiquity, it also presents impassioned documentation of the present Chinese government’s quashing of activism and criticism.

Ai has known Chinese government oppression first-hand nearly all his life. In 1958, when he was one year old, his father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, who had written a poem deemed prejudicial to the regime, was banished with his family to a hard-labor camp in Heilongjian in China’s northeast and forced to clean public toilets in a village. After his term in the labor camp ended, their exile continued in Xinjiang, in the far northwest. At one point young Ai was made a party to the oppression: he was forced to destroy the books his father had brought back from Paris page by page and burn each page himself as his father watched. The family was not allowed to return to Beijing until the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

In 1981 Ai went to the U.S. In the twelve years he spent here, mostly in New York City, he was strongly influenced by the work of Marcel Duchamp, by Andy Warhol, whom he knew, and perhaps most dramatically, by his friendship with the poet Allen Ginsberg. In 1968, during the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the injustices rampant in American society at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Ginsberg had courageously used the formidable strength of his art and his spirituality to go beyond bearing witness and voicing dissent. He became a non-violent leader who created zones of peace around him when anti-war protestors were attacked in Lincoln Park in what the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (NCCPV) called a police riot, then again, during another brutal show of police force at Grant Park. Four years later in Miami Beach, where the Democratic National Convention was peaceful, he worked to mend a critical fissure in the splintered society: “officiating” at “The Marriage of the Generations,” he wedded young people, estranged from their parents by the conflicting values that had provoked the generation gap, to their grandparents’ generation, immigrants who had adapted successfully to their new world. The following month he was jailed for protesting against President Richard Nixon at the Republican National Convention.

The work of Duchamp and Warhol showed Ai how important cultural values and symbols can be in determining what an artist creates. Ginsberg’s example revealed how personal integrity can compel an artist to express strongly held values in his or her art. Ai returned to China with a new understanding of how art can be inspired and with the realization that oppression can be fought through creative activism.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibit is a fascinating demonstration of how he integrated both of these perspectives into his art. The intricate design carved into a one-cubic meter minimalist piece called Cube in Ebony, which is actually made of rosewood, considered one of the “three precious woods” by the Tang dynasty, is a cultural and historical statement. It is identical to the carving on a small rosewood bowl, also on display, that belonged to Ai’s father. The cube is hollow. Its empty space represents the creative range his father gave him to think on his own.

ai-weiwei teahouse Teahouses is an installation of three, one-cubic meter replicas of the community structures where villagers traditionally gathered to drink tea and take part in the daily give and take of village life. Historically, tea leaves grown in China were compressed into bricks that were carried to market by mules on trips along steep mountain roads that could last months. Each of Ai’s teahouses is composed of tea leaf bricks and weighs one ton. Stand close and you can smell the tea.

In similar fashion, other works of art directly incorporate the complexity of China and its history. The wood that comprises several of the sculptures and installations on view came from temples and other old Qing dynasty structures that were dismantled to make way for modern China. But more personal influences and experiences that also went into forming him are also prominent—dozens of his photographs of the U.S. and of the artists, poets, and other people he knew here line the walls.

In the next gallery are two bowls, each one meter in diameter and filled with freshwater pearls. Bowl of Pearls will jog your sense of value. The sight of one fine pearl, or even a small selection of pearls, stimulates a fantasy of wealth. When you see so many pearls, their value loses meaning.

In collaboration with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, Ai designed the National Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest,” for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and was featured prominently in the Chinese government’s massive propaganda build-up to the games. But when he publicly deplored the demolition of traditional neighborhoods many Beijing residents lived in—hutongs—to make way for the Olympic structures, criticized the police state measures introduced, which included the expulsion of vagrants and the revocation of visas for students who worked in the city, and refused to participate in the Olympic celebrations, the high esteem in which the government held him ended.

rebar Meanwhile, citizen investigations following the devastating 2008 Szechuan earthquake had revealed that while schools and other buildings in well-off neighborhoods came through the disaster relatively intact, in low-income districts many schools had collapsed completely and the “tofu dregs” construction resulting from sub-standard materials and local corruption had caused the deaths of 5,200 children. Ai’s activism took on new purpose and strength.

He began collecting the names of the earthquake victims and posting them on his blog, which his comments about the Olympics had made very popular. Readers kept asking why he and not the government was doing this. Eventually a prominent government official asked him to stop. Ai told him that while it wasn’t his job to find the names, he had to find the last one and he would stop if the government would find the names. The government did not and he continued.

In 2009, the night before he was scheduled to testify on behalf of a writer accused of inciting subversion of state power for investigating the Szechuan corruption allegations, police raided his hotel room, struck him on the head, and locked him up long enough to keep him from his court appearance.

The writer was sentenced to five years in prison. Ai suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that has affected his speech and memory (“Brain Inflation,” a photo of the MRI scan showing the hemorrhage, is part of the exhibition). The government shut down his blog, which had more than 100,000 visits a day.

The exhibit includes three of Ai’s artistic responses to the Szechuan catastrophe. He recovered the rebar (steel rods embedded in the concrete used in construction) from the earthquake-destroyed schools. “Straight” is comprised of seventy-three tons of the collapsed, twisted steel cables hammered straight and laid on the gallery floor like an undulating carpet of parts to be inserted in concrete to lend it tensile strength—piled up in some areas, in a thinner layer in other parts—high and low, like a Richter Scale graph of an earthquake. On the adjacent walls, however, hangs proof that the damage wreaked by the earthquake cannot be straightened or undone. Photos of the concrete and steel wreckage of the destroyed schools hang on one wall. On the opposite wall is “Remembrance,” an installation where the name of each student earthquake victim is written. An audio recording of each name read aloud is available to be heard. Overhead is Snake Ceiling—a coiled serpentine of children’s backpacks.

“Ye Haiyan’s Belongings” is a definitive, detailed display of the brutal oppression of women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan, whom the government evicted from several apartments and finally dumped, with her daughter and all they owned, on the side of a highway.

Ai came to their rescue then photographed all their belongings—every ricebowl, t-shirt, pair of panties, teapot, schoolbook—and had wallpaper made of the images to line the gallery walls. Decrepit cartons and suitcases packed with the actual objects owned by Ye and her daughter occupy the center of the floor; a bicycle, a motorbike, a fan, and a refrigerator are nearby. A photograph that shows Ye, three other women, and Ai nude seems private and chaste in the context of this wholesale public degradation the government forced the mother and daughter to endure.

Ai’s relentless free expression has not gone unpunished.

In 2011 he was arrested at the Beijing airport. His head covered with a black hood, he was taken to a military police base, imprisoned in a cell where the lights were constantly on, and held for eighty-one days, handcuffed for the first month. Three surveillance cameras and two uniformed guards who crowded close to him monitored him twenty-four hours a day. He was not allowed a change of clothes and was required to sit in one position.

Before he could make any move, such as scratching his head, he was required to report the move he wanted to make. Interrogated fifty-one times and accused of inciting subversion of state power, he was finally released, stripped of his passport, and fined for tax evasion. He is not allowed to go anywhere outside his home without asking permission and is followed wherever he goes.

Over the eighty-one days, however, he seared vivid impressions of every detail of the cell and his life in it into his memory. These he transformed into the installation S.A.C.R.E.D.

In the lobby of the museum stand six iron boxes. Climb onto a smaller iron box and look down into the big box from the top, or peer directly into it from the side, and you will see a half-scale, stunningly lifelike diorama of Ai and his arm’s length jailers as he engages in one of the six daily activities that were the worst experiences of his imprisonment: S—Supper, A—Accusers (interrogation), C—Cleansing (shower), R—Ritual (walking in his cell),E—Entropy (sleep—turning forbidden, hands outside the blanket for camera monitoring), D—Doubt (toilet).

From Ai’s memory to yours. “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is an art exhibit you will not forget.

© Walli F Leff July 2014
Walli F. Leff’s psychological thriller, The Woman Who Couldn’t Remember But Didn’t Forget, published by Sunstone Press, is available in both print and e-book editions. With Marilyn G. Haft, she co-authored Time Without Work, published by South End Press. She writes articles on psychology, science, cultural and political affairs, and travel.

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