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Ai Weiwei’s Washington Moment

He’s been jailed, beaten, and most recently, had his design firm, Fake Cultural Development, shut down by Chinese authorities. Now famed Beijing artist and Twitter hero Ai Weiwei is currently being showered with the most official reverence possible in the contemporary art world here in America: a retrospective of his work mere blocks from the U.S. Capitol, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.

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Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012. Photo by Cathy Carver.

The gorgeous new exhibition According to What? is a collaboration with Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, where much of this work was first seen. But its placement within a federally funded institution smack in the middle of Washington, DC’s National Mall gives this showcase, nearly all of it politically charged, additional meaning.

Standing somewhat in contrast to Ai’s bombastic social media presence, the Hirshhorn has assembled a stately vision of the artist’s life and work—an elegant series of sculptures and photographs that convey a dual dedication to craftsmanship and subversiveness.

Coca-Cola Vase, for example, is a pristine piece of Neolithic-era pottery that’s been expertly defaced with the most recognizable logo in the world. Similarly, Map of China is a perfect cutout in the shape of his home country constructed from the wood of dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty. Ai’s discomfort with China’s rapid urbanization policies here is unmistakable: The country he loves is systematically tearing down its ancient villages to replace them with gleaming new metropolises, without stopping to consider what’s being lost.

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Installation view of Snake Ceiling at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012. Photo by Cathy Carver.
Many of Ai’s recent works have focused on the aftermath and victims of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and together they form an emotional wallop at the core of the show. Snake Ceiling, a serpent formed from backpacks in a range of sizes, and Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, a literal black-and-white list of the youngest victims of the disaster, both serve to catalogue and remember the identities of those lost—information that had been suppressed by Chinese authorities.

If the story of modern urbanization is today playing out most profoundly in China, Ai Weiwei may rightly be counted among its most important chroniclers. His unusual celebrity and now, megaphone inside Washington manage to amplify the impact of his aesthetic rather than serve as a distraction.

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Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist

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