Musings on the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Ai Wei Wei: According to What? Part 1

by Rachel Ozerkevich

Ai Wei Wei seems to be everywhere right now. Ironically, the Chinese artist is technically not allowed to leave China: his passport has been confiscated by the government as part of its latest endeavours to monitor and silence the controversial artist and his increasingly vocal political commentary.

The Chinese government’s attempts at controlling, monitoring and silencing the artist and his work have been anything but successful outside the country, as is made testament by his participation in this year’s Venice Biennale—he contributed both a solo installation work, 2013’s Sacred, as well as added his voice to the German Pavilion—and now has a high-profile exhibition at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).  I had the privilege of seeing Ai Wei Wei’s pieces at the Venice Biennale back in June, and this past week was able to visit the AGO to see this latest show.

I’ll admit that prior to this summer, though I had heard of the artist, I was only vaguely familiar with his work and his online presence. It wasn’t until this summer that I became increasingly aware of the sheer magnitude of his commentary and the seemingly arcane human rights injustices his work continues to bring to light.

The AGO exhibit is ambitious in scope, begging the question of whether or not it’s even possible to represent such a large body of work (both literally and theoretically) within a single gallery setting. While the AGO’s attempt to do so is admirable, it brings to light issues of recontexualizing work in pristine gallery spaces—issues that this artist’s work in particular seems to raise.

It is now difficult to discuss Ai Wei Wei without addressing his celebrity-like popularity, which many seem to hold against him. Whether or not he runs the risk (or perhaps privilege) of becoming as much a household name as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons is, I believe, irrelevant. Ai’s work is timely and important; it manages to bring to light issues that are not nearly as spoken about as they should be, in an often playful and accessible manner.

Provisional Landscapes, 2003-2007

The show currently at the AGO presents a unique opportunity to view a wide array of the artist’s work, spanning from the beginning of his career to the present. On entering the gallery, I was struck immediately by his 2003 – 2007’s Provisional Landscapes – an earlier project that still uses the  medium of photography. The work is composed of a series of stark photographs of commercial and industrial sites under construction throughout China. These areas, all on government-owned land, are presented as entirely devoid of human life. The installation’s write-up reminds the viewer that the Chinese government displaced each area’s inhabitants to make room for rampant development. By covering the walls in the gallery space from floor to ceiling (even the benches) with these photos, the curators have forced viewers to physically walk through these landscapes. I could not help but feel personally implicated there: are we as viewers allowed to partake in these images thanks to forced development? Stripped of their inhabitants, these views were presented to us as evidence of the environmental, but more explicitly human, impact that mass development is having globally. It is a deeply moving and disturbing installation.

To be continued…

According to What? is on at AGO until October 27, 2013.

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