Top: Heroic scale cardboard statue of Ai Weiwei in the AGO lobby, by Canadian artist Sean Martindale. Left: Ai Weiwei exhibits. Neolithlic vase painted with silver Coca-Cola logo. Right: Large rosewood cube, textured with traditional Chinese carving. Bottom: Chinese “Forever” brand bicycles in an eternal circle, without pedals.
A camel, the saying goes, is a horse designed by a committee. Outstanding art-making usually depends on a kind of totalitarianism… one authority making all of the decisions. Workers may assist in production, but they must follow the design dictates of the lead artist. A bit of irony. Ai Weiwei works this way, producing thought-provoking work, superbly crafted. Danica points out that Weiwei’s workers are volunteers who are not imprisoned if they do not want to help on one of his projects. So there’s totalitarianism, and there’s totalitarianism… in this case, one working against the other.
Most of the works in the current show could not have been made by a single artist. They are too big, too heavy and too demanding of specialized skills. Even installing the show must have required armies of helpers and heavy equipment especially the straightened rebar rods. They weigh 38 tonnes.
Straightened rebar rods from concrete in earthquake-destroyed school
The rebar was salvaged from the ruins of a school that collapsed in an earthquake, killing over 5,000 students. It was mangled and twisted until Ai Weiwei began to straighten out the record. Substandard construction had contributed to the disaster and officials were keen to suppress evidence of corruption. Even the number of victims was difficult to find out, until Weiwei and his helpers made the count, name by name, and memorialized the students with a wall and audio reading of the list.
Wall of school children’s names.
The Chinese government’s displeasure with Ai Weiwei has led to his present house arrest, of course, while he is the darling of Western governments who are pleased to hold him up in contrast to our our relative freedom of expression. “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” One of many Ai Weiwei quotes imprinted on the gallery walls.
For me, the show is one irony layered upon another. For you, it may be something else… perhaps an awe-inspiring experience of Chinese culture and craftsmanship, or a curiosity about who funds Ai Weiwei’s massive undertakings. One thing is sure, the show will make you think, and think, and think… about art history, aesthetics, politics, freedom, the future of China in the world. Go and enjoy it. Ai Weiwei. According to What? Art Gallery of Ontario until October 27, 2013.