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.
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.
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.