During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I had a chance to see Ai Weiwei: According to What?, an exhibit of the Chinese artist’s work that’s running at the Hirshhorn museum in Washington, DC, until February 24. In recent years, Ai’s work as a critically important political provocateur has made him even more famous than his art. But the show’s a really stunning reminder of how indivisible his vision as an artist is from his vision for China as a more humane, democratic society.
While the show is framed, to a certain extent, by a huge collection of Ai’s photography from his time in the United States, including portraits of Allenn Ginsberg, images of AIDS patients during some of the worst years of the epidemic, snapshots of Bill Clinton in Harlem, and personal photographs that offer up a vision of New York that’s radically different, and much more Chinese, than the one that dominates popular culture, the best individual pieces in the show address China, not the United States. On a macro level, the theme of According to What? is the irreducible individuality of the parts that make up a whole. In a solid block girded by metal pipes, it’s impossible not to see the beauty of the individual pieces that have been fit together to compose it:
In a sea of ceramic crabs, which represent a feast to which Ai invited his followers, I was struck by the expression of one of them:
The pieces are a rebuke both to Party attempts to tamp down the individuality of its citizens, and to the tendency outside of China to see the nation as a monolith.
That same principal is at work in one of the largest pieces in the installation, and one that expresses a more recent theme in Ai’s work. An arrangement of rebar that Weiwei’s studio obtained from the remains of schools that collapsed—allegedly because of shoddy construction practices—during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed 68,000 people is overwhelming in the aggregate, but particularly beautiful when you get up close to the individual pieces of steel:
And he inverts that idea in an enormous snake, sewn together from matching backpacks representing the thousands of children who died in those schools. Individually, they represent their families’ private griefs. But together, their deaths anchor a collective and public outrage, an entity with coils and fangs—all that remains is the question of whether they’ll be used:
It’s a tremendous show, and a sharp rebuke not just to the Chinese government and to anyone who dismisses Ai as a simple political activist, but to the idea that art and politics somehow occupy separate spheres. Art doesn’t lose any of its dignity when it’s applied to protest. And politics is not somehow exempt from the powerful examination that comes from the outside perspectives of artists.