by Rachel Ozerkevich
Ai Wei Wei’s practice has long extended beyond classical artistic media. While he does continue to work in photography, sculpture and film, his online presence via blogging, Facebook and Twitter has become a main vehicle for his musings and political beliefs. The internet has also become his primary means of communicating with the outside world from the confines of his Beijing studio where he currently resides. His eagerness to adopt social media as an art practice seems to have a marked effect on the aesthetic quality of his more recent work. A good example here is his Chengdu elevator photo, an image that Ai took of himself and his arresting officers using the reflection in an elevator mirror. The image is grainy and blurry, with awkward framing and composition. It is reminiscent of the oh-so-prevalent “selfie” from the Facebook and Instagram realms, albeit more sinister. Ai Wei Wei here is literally documenting his own arrest: the group of stoic arresting officers behind him are inescapable.
The most interesting aspect of this piece is its re-contextualization in the gallery space. The image has been enlarged and mounted against a white gallery, creating a stark disconnect between the image’s original context (originally posted on the artist’s Twitter feed) and the photo’s newly elevated gallery placement. The image ultimately fails to escape its social-media origins. Ai Wei Wei’s work resists easy recontextualization in the AGO’s setting: we are made uncomfortable and unsure not only of what it is we are looking at but why it is we are looking at it here, in a gallery, on such a large scale. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way of experiencing what was at one time a viral internet image, as much of this work seems awkward and out of place in a formal gallery setting.
After moving through the Provisional Landscapes hall, past the elevator photo and x-ray account of the aritst’s arrest and the brutal police beating he endured, I entered a massive, open space filled with installations. The effect of having works such as 2010’s Grapes (a re-imagination and obscuring of Qing Dynasty furniture) installed in close proximity to thousands of photographs of the construction of the Beijing Birdcage was overwhelming.
To the uninitiated, the overall theme might seem deceptively simple. Ai Wei Wei’s work is inarguably political. These works, as well as 2008’s Map of China, present differently accessible views of Chinese histories, cultures, identities and social problems, all communicated through charged physical materials—from tightly-packed Pu-erh tea in 2011’s Teahouse to Chinese quince wood in 2008’s Moon Chest—all transplanted into the open gallery space. It is impossible to view the works individually, since they create a space that must be woven through by the spectator. The result is a room of forced connections, with each piece bleeding into the next, one large-scale work after another.
This isn’t to say that Ai Wei Wei’s works don’t share a connection. The artist has been famously outspoken about his anti-propagandistic beliefs regarding the Chinese government. His desire to bring political awareness through any media he sees fit informs much of the work on display here. He publicly criticized the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games after designing the famous Birdcage structure to partially house the games, and, more recently, has been vocal regarding the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Ai Wei Wei’s aim to unearth the over 5000 names of the children killed in the disaster has brought him under heavy fire by the Chinese government, whose attempts to dissuade public outcries about shoddy construction standards and human rights violations have now been plastered on walls around the world by the aritst and his colleagues in the Sichuan Earthquake Names piece, in progress since 2008.
Here, the gallery has presented the lists of children’s names, birthdates and schools they attended on a massive, unobstructed wall, from floor to ceiling. I got the sense that the gallery did the piece justice. The work is simply overwhelming: 5,196 names are written in Chinese script—though it is impossible for those who do not read the language to decipher the names or schools, the effect is devastating when one attempts to grasp that each symbol stands in for a life. Viewing the work within the confines of a gallery, no matter how lofty the space, only added to the overwhelming and claustrophobia-inducing effect of the work. Remembrance of 2010, an audio recording of people from around the world reading the victims’ names, is audible when standing directly in front of the text. Here, the interdisciplinary nature that seems so characteristic of Ai Wei Wei’s work is evident. His active social networking has been brilliantly put to use by bringing international voices to what was at risk of remaining an only locally recognized tragedy.
It would be impossible for me to address each of the pieces included in the AGO’s exhibition. It is almost equally difficult to sum up the show, as doing so would risk summing up Ai Wei Wei’s work. Though it may be safer to say that the artist’s body of work was presented as critical and politically minded, the show serves as an excellent reminder of the difficulty inherent in grouping together a monumental body of work under the guise of a singular overarching theme. Each piece seemed simply too large to contain, and certainly too large to group together. I left the show feeling oversaturated—I don’t consider that a bad thing—but ultimately glad that I had previously come across Ai a’s work in different contexts and under different circumstances.
Ai Wei Wei: According to What? is on at AGO until October 27, 2013