29 May 2014

Ai Weiwei exhibit "According to What?" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Museum entrance; exhibition poster.

On May 23, the day after our son graduated from a law school in Manhattan, we took the #3 train to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. We planned a lunch meeting with our delightful friend Elke, who lives in Brooklyn, and the museum is a convenient place to meet (and, of course, there's some good art there!).

Before  lunch we viewed a retrospective of the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (pronounced Eye Way way) entitled "According to What?" on exhibit here through August 10, 2014. The show has been favorably reviewed in The New York Times, unfavorably reviewed in The New Republic and given a just-the-facts-ma'am review in The Wall Street Journal (the Journal is print media sponsor of the show.) Lots of press - so, whatever else, his work trains eyes on human rights abuses in China and succeeds in its activist role. The question for some seems to be whether the work succeeds on an artistic level. There is a lot to see; in this blog entry I discuss three works which balance the artistic and the political triumphantly.

The expansive exhibit fills the fourth and fifth floors of this spacious museum and the layout works well. Installations and artifacts are well-lit, flow is logical and the gallery spaces are appropriate to the work.

Although some of the items in this survey are gimmicky puns, such as a "ready-made" of two boot soles wrapped around a wine bottle and titled Chateau Lafitte (feet=soles, get it?), many of the later works, responses to particular events, are original, imaginative and moving.

In the work pictured below, Straight, AiWeiWei and his team recovered and straightened tons of twisted rebar salvaged from schools which collapsed in the  Sichuan earthquake of 2008. For those unfamiliar with concrete construction, rebar - short for reinforcing bar -  is the name for steel rods embedded in  concrete beams, columns and slabs. Concrete has almost unlimited compressive strength, but not much tensile strength - that is provided by the metal rebar.

Making concrete structures earthquake-resistant requires attention to seismic construction detailing; evidently many, if not most, of the collapsed schools were not engineered or built for seismic risk. When the earthquake hit, tons of material fell, without much warning, onto the occupants, in this case mostly children, whose schools became tombs.  Like a display of weaponry in an armorial hall, we are looking at instruments of death, decoratively arrayed, but lethal.

The ordered, undulating landscape of reclaimed rebar forms a chilling contrast to the piles of mangled concrete and steel pictured in the photographs of the destroyed schools on the gallery walls.  To bring the point home, on one wall of the gallery there is a listing of the names of many of the dead. This almost makes the installation too specific - there are many people around the world who have died in unsafe buildings, structures thrown up by owners or governments heedless of safety. This work could be a monument to them all.

Straight, 2008 - 2012.
Straight, detail.

I don't think it's too literal an interpretation to suggest that the circular ends of the  rebar are reminiscent of small, round faces.

Another powerful work is Ye Haiyan's Belongings, pictured below.  Ye Haiyan is a gender activist whom the government evicted from her home and dumped by the roadside with her daughter and all her hastily-packed possessions. The walls of the gallery are papered floor to ceiling with a photographic inventory of her household items, and, in the center, recreations of her belongings as they were packed in flimsy boxes and sagging suitcases, standing alongside domestic appliances, including a refrigerator and fan.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, there is a photograph of Ai WeiWei and Ms. Ye, along with several other women; all are nude. In our celebrity culture, nudity doesn't have much impact to shock anymore, at least not in the West. The idea of bodily chastity and privacy of the person seems almost quaint.

However, in consumer culture, where we worship at the altar of aspirational consumption, one's identity is constructed from what one owns. Confrontation with all of Ms. Ye's belongings feels more embarassingly intimate than viewing her nude body in the photograph.  She voluntarily took off her clothes; however, the forced eviction led to exposure of all her stuff - she and her family are without shelter, with no  boundary between their things and the world, with no home.

This installation recalls news photos of evicted American families, their belongings at the curb, during the foreclosure crisis caused by our government's failure to address abuses in the mortgage industry.  Again, the work succeeds partly because the result of homelessness as an outcome of  government action is a cross-cultural issue. Mr. Ai's work makes visible the obscenity in the misuse of government power in relation to that  basic human need, shelter.

And yes, I exaggerate to make my point - I do not equate the actions of a totalitarian regime with the greed of some banks that led to worthless debt collateralization. The Western press reports on the problems at lending institutions without fear of retribution; Mr. Ai's passport has been taken and he is essentially under house arrest.

Ye Haiyan's Belongings, detail, 2013.
Ye Haiyan's Belongings, detail, 2013.

Mr. Ai was forcibly detained and held incommunicado for 81 days in 2011. His response to his detention may be the most powerful work in the show. Titled S.A.C.R.E.D, it is six large metal boxes, each with a locked, numbered door, and a glazed window, either on the top or side of the box. The viewer steps on a small metal step to peer through a glazed window into the interior of each box. The interiors recreate, at a scale slightly smaller than life-size, the tiny cell in which Mr. Ai spent his detention. These are the dioramas from hell.

New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith compared the boxes to work by Richard Serra, at least when viewed from the exterior, but Richard Serra's work has never been this gut-wrenching.  Imagine a mash-up of the Thorn miniature rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago with the forensic creations of Frances Glessner Lee and with Francisco Goya's Disasters of War.

The miniaturization upends the usual domesticity associated with children's doll houses and other model toys. The reduced scale makes us feel the hallucinatory compression and confinement endured under near constant surveillance from guards who crowd and jostle their prisoner as a means of intimidation. The experience of political prisoners has rarely been so potently expressed as in this work.

S.A.C.R.E.D., exterior of boxes.
S.A.C.R.E.D., details, 2013.

There is a lot of food for thought in this exhibit, not least of which is the nature of the West's response to Mr. Ai's situation specifically and to human rights abuses in China as a whole.