Monday, January 28, 2013

Ai Weiwei: According to What?

I don't like to leave readers hanging, subtly hinting about my feels of an exhibit, or waiting until the end to give a verdict. As a reader, I find that kind of writing annoying because the first thing I want to know about a show is whether I should waste my time reading about it. So, the first thing I want to say about Ai Weiwei's exhibit, According to What?, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC (October 7, 2012 - February 24, 2013) is that I loved it. I love how the work is challenging -- emotionally, conceptually, and intellectually. It makes you think -- about the limits of human ingenuity, the preciousness of artifacts, and the role of contemporary art in modern society. I also found it particularly interesting in having seen it after a visit to the Renwick Gallery's 40 under 40: Craft Futures exhibit. That show demonstrated how craft and contemporary art can no longer be viewed as a dichotomy; this one reinforces that conclusion while also blurring the lines between hand-craft and technology-craft.

At the entrance of the exhibit (surrounded by images of the construction of the "bird's nest" stadium that Ai helped to design for the Beijing Olympics) are two spheres constructed out of octagons and hexagons (I believe, if I counted right, they are 34-sided). The title of the large sphere, Divina Proportione, refers a mathematics book written by Luca Pacioli in 1497 and illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci. One of the drawings in the book is a "sphere" made with squares and triangles but the series was actually inspired by a toy for Ai's cat.
Divina Proportione (left) and F Size (right)
Huali Wood
Collection of J. Chen/Courtesy of Ai Wei Wei Studio
That play between history and modernity is a constant theme of the show, but what I found truly remarkable about the work is the impeccably precise craftsmanship that went into its construction. In watching the Art 21 profile on Ai Weiwei, I learned that Ai hired traditional Chinese craftsmen to make the series and that they spent a year trying to figure out how to make this kind of work using traditional Chinese joinery.

From the image below you can see how the wood overlaps. Making something like this out of wood is much more difficult than other materials because there needs to be a surface area for glue at each joint. It would be interesting to know whether there is also a mortise and tenon joint inside each corner (I suspect there is). As wood sculpture, the work is mindbogglingly complex, I'm surprised it would only take a year to figure out.
Divina Proportione (closeup)
With F-Size, a bead was added to the edge, I suspect because the work had become just too easy.
F Size (closeup)

With China Log, Ai constructed a "log" made from posts of dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, with a map of China carved through the middle, end to end.
China Log
tieli wood (iron wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Private Collection
The posts used to make it, and the joinery for combining of the posts reference China's past, but how they were combined and the carving of the map of China within reference the present. The mystery is in thinking about where the hand-craft ends and the technology-craft begins; the magic is in thinking about how it could have been done. It seems to me to be an impossible object -- with or without modern technology.
China Log (closeup)

A similar theme is created with Grapes, a sphere-like structure made from precisely sculpted, overlapping, antique stools.

40 antique stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Collection of Larry Warsh
I'm guessing something like this would have to be done by hand, by highly skilled craftsmen, but I'm not sure. It makes me wonder, in amazement, how craftsmen can be so precise, or, alternatively, how our technology has become so advanced that an object like this could be constructed with it. Additionally, I'm curious about whether some kind of reinforcing (blind) joinery was constructed between the connecting seats because of the tremendous weight that the joints need to hold, though, I guess an epoxy could also be strong enough to hold them together. I doubt that an average wood glue would work on its own.
Grapes (closeup)

With Cube in Ebony (mysteriously made with rosewood rather than ebony), Ai created a contemporary form, a minimalist cube, but had it intricately carved with the same pattern he found on a small wooden box belonging to his father (see below).
Cube in Ebony
I love how this piece again blurs the lines between past and present, contemporary art and traditional craft.
Small wooden box belonging to Ai's father
With Kippe, Ai again used wood from dismantled temples (with all the pieces in the show made with dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, it makes me wonder whether he destroyed them for art, whether they were being torn down anyway, or whether he salvaged the pieces that had long been dismantled, and, in general, what was the history of the artifacts -- thereby adding the the mystery of the work and making me -- and I suspect other viewers -- uneasy and unsure about it). I couldn't find a translation or implied meaning for the title, but it looks to me like a coffin that would be carried to the grave - perhaps implying the burial of history.
tieli wood (ironwood) from dismantled Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples and iron parallel bars
In this closeup you can see that the pieces are chopped small and fit nicely together, but not perfectly, as in some of the other pieces. Here they are a bit more haphazard internally but perfectly aligned on the outside, which I interpret as being meant as metaphor for China.
Kippe (closeup)

In Map of China, Ai's China can't be seen at eye level (even if you are 6'1"). You just see a block of wood intricately carved with vertical lines.
Map of China
tieli wood (ironwood) from dismantled Qing Dynasty (1694 - 1911) temples
I struggled to get a top view by holding the camera over my head so that you can see how amazing the construction of this piece is. It is still hard to see, but each of the columns from the disassembled temples fit perfectly together, and then the whole block is carved into a map of China (no surprise there). The wall text says that it is made "using traditional Chinese joinery techniques," implying that it was made by hand and not machine. I'm not really sure how that would be done, and certainly the outside must have been carved with a CNC router, but, again, this is one of the great things about the piece, the mystery of where the ancient craftwork ends and modern technology begins.

I don't agree with the wall text in its assessment that this map of China "can be understood as symbolizing the political unity of a country made up of many different cultural and historical factors. The monumental scale of the work suggests the long history of the Chinese nation." Rather, I think the monumental scale shows the viewer how difficult it is to understand China. It is impenetrable and unknowable, a mystery from the outside view. In fact, you can't even know that you are looking at China. Only from a bird's-eye view do you have any understanding of what you are looking at and what you see is a complete (and still mysterious) amalgamation of the past and present.
Map of China (almost top view)

In this final piece, Ai again commissioned highly skill Chinese traditional craftsman to create eighty-one chests (seven on view) in which four holes are precisely placed so that the viewer can see every phase of the moon in them, though, how exactly to use them to do this I found a little confusing. 
Moon Chest
seven chests in huali wood (quince)
Looking directly through the holes and trying to line up the chests does no good, you really can't see much of anything, and being that none of us are 8' tall to see though the top holes, in alignment, that can't be done either (and how you would look at the top hole depends on where you stand and your personal height).
Moon Chest (view 2)
I clearly need to learn more about the phases of the moon to understand where to stand or how to walk around them, but at the very least, you can see that the shapes of the white and black of the holes changes in moon-like shapes. Additionally, one of the confusing aspects is that (I think) light/black of the moon is inverted in looking at the cabinets versus the real thing. Regardless of exactly how you are supposed to see the moon in these, it is again a wonderful mixture of tradition and modernity, which I'm sure is again a metaphor for China.
Moon Chest (view 3)
(Looking at this last image, I'm not sure that one isn't supposed to look directly through the holes -- I'm confused.)
Moon Chest (view 4)
In reading Roberta Smith's New York Times review of this show, I learned that the title of the exhibit, According to What?, is a reference to a seminal Jasper Johns painting by the same name. Based on some other articles easily found on-line, I learned that this painting is an homage to Marcel Duchamp and references his painting Tu m'. Knowing this makes me think that Ai is claiming an elite artistic lineage, or at least taking this elite lineage and claiming it for China. It is a ballsy claim, but the show is very ballsy. It is very much in your face, challenging the viewer and making you think about the value of the past and its role in the present. Blurring lines forcing the viewer to ask questions and wonder -- something great art should do, and, as such, I feel that the ballsy title is backed up by the quality of the work. As you might have guessed by now, I loved this show.


  1. After seeing the show, all I can think is that I wish I had enough money to hire some of the best craftsmen in the world to make my work for me!

  2. J.T., I think the key is to move to China, I hear labor is pretty cheap there. I'm with you though. If I could just find more people to buy my work, I just might do it.

  3. It's quite possible that the log with the china carved in the middle and the giant China were done by hand. It would have required making a set of custom moulding planes with fairly intricate blades. Each one would handle a small part of the overall China outline. That part would be a challenge, but would not be especially difficult for someone with a metal file and some patience. Then it's just a matter of using the moulding planes (probably running in jigs to hold them at the right angles) down the wood until they've cut the desired profile.

    Still, however they were done, that's some pretty impressive woodwork!

    1. Thanks for the information, Jason. It is fascinating thinking about how it could be done. Your description is very helpful.