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Outspoken Chinese Artist-Activist's Work Comes To D.C.

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Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most prolific and provocative artists, has an exhibit called "Fragments" at the Freer/Sackler Gallery.
Kavitha Cardoza
Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most prolific and provocative artists, has an exhibit called "Fragments" at the Freer/Sackler Gallery.

Ai Weiwei is one of China's most prolific and provocative artists. He is also very political, openly criticizing the Chinese government's record on human rights and democracy. Last year he was detained under charges of economic crimes, and he still can't leave China. But two works from his exhibition "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" are being shown in D.C.

The first, in the Freer/Sackler Gallery, looks like "a very large, handcrafted 3-dimensional puzzle," says Carol Huh, the gallery's curator of contemporary Asian art. It's called "Fragments" and uses salvaged wood from ancient Chinese temples. Ai has reassembled the wood into a jumble of crisscrossed beams and pillars joined through hand-drilled holes and wooden pegs. Huh says the installation piece forms a rough outline of a map of China. The tallest beam roughly marks the location of Beijing.

Huh says Ai Weiwei created "Fragments" after he returned to China, following more than a decade in New York. Urban development meant the physical landscape in Beijing was changing rapidly--the old being torn down to make way for the new.

"It's in this context that he starts to look at the past, but his work is not just about simply preserving it, but about reconfiguring it, reinterpreting it, asking questions about what we mean by cultural heritage, what is our relationship to the past and what we mean by authentic art," says Huh.

The exhibit is being presented concurrently with another of Ai Weiwei's works at the Hirshhorn Museum. It comprises a circle of 12 bronze sculptures, each representing a Chinese zodiac sign.

"They're 800 pounds each, and they're a little bit scary," says Mika Yoshitake, Hirshhorn's assistant curator. "These are very enlarged. You're looking up at it, and they look like they can consume you!"

The sculptures are in some cases imagined versions of the original 18th century Zodiac heads during the Qing dynasty. Those animals were designed by an Italian priest and placed in the Garden of Perfect Brightness, an imperial retreat outside Beijing. During the Second Opium War, European invaders took the originals back to the West. She says in 2008, two of the heads went up for auction through the fashion designer Yves San Laurent.

"The Chinese government felt this was a national treasure," she says. "They bid for it but never paid for it. It caused a scandal, and that was impetus for Ai Weiwei to create the piece. There were questions about 'What is a national treasure?' Of course it was made in China by created by an Italian and taken by Europeans and you don't know whose national treasure this really is."

Ai Weiwei has said that he has lived with political struggle since birth. But both Yoshitake and Huh play down Ai's political activism. Yoshitake says, "It's our reaction to try and tame, not just from the public but the art world, there is this sense that Weiwei is overexposed in a sense through this political angle."

Huh agrees. "I would fully embrace the criticism we're playing down the politics. We're placing the politics in context. I don't think you can look at all of his art, his entire body of work through our current political moment. We've had a long relationship with China, and this is one aspect of it. At the Freer/Sackler, we reach back to the Neolithic age in China through 20th century calligraphy. So this is one moment for us."

Huh says the more important point is whether these artworks will still be relevant when this political moment passes. "He said the artworks are opportunities for individuals to activate their imaginations. And then it's the accumulations of those imaginations that will hopefully lead to social change. So he's not trying to make a closed statement, rather he's opening it out, and it's this wonderful quality that attracts us to his work."

Huh says whether Ai Weiwei's art, or any art, actually creates change is still vigorously debated. "But in order to make a large number of people aware of something, what better way to do it than through a language that is imaginative, accessible and a multisensory experience?"

Yoshitake agrees. "Change is not on just a mass level. But on a very personal level." Because even though the questions are universal and the installation pieces imposing, she says one of the important aspects of art is to have an intimate contemplative experience.

"Zodiac Signs" and "Fragments" are a preview of a much larger exhibition featuring 45 of Ai Weiwei's major works set to open this fall in D.C.


[Music: "Melodies from the Night Fishermen" by Chinese Instrumental Ensemble from Masterpieces of Chinese Traditional Music]

Photos: Ai Weiwei Exhibits

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