Ai Weiwei's Provocative Art, Now in Brooklyn

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ai Weiwei, 56, is probably the most provocative artist from China today: He smashes ancient vases and makes sculptures about missing earthquake victims. Now his work is the subject of a full-scale retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, According to What?

One major problem: He can’t come here to see it. After he was arrested by Chinese officials in 2011, his passport was confiscated and he’s stuck at home in Beijing.

Art critic Deborah Solomon explained that Ai lived in New York in the '80s and '90s, and a lot of his work is influenced by pop artists like Andy Warhol. "What he learned from Warhol is that every object is merchandise," she said.

Solomon said that Ai stacks things up, just the way Warhol did, to suggest we live in a mass-produced world. "Ai Weiwei loves assembling similar objects, so he will give us, for instance, a pile of bicycles that stretches from the floor to the ceiling, or a bowl of freshwater pearls," she said.

Ai has been especially vocal about the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008 that killed almost 70,000 people. In one piece, called Snake Ceiling, he uses kids' backpacks to form a snake to represent the thousands of kids who died in the tragedy.

Ai Weiwei Snake Ceiling (Collection of Larry Warsh)

In another, called Straight, he straightens rebar recovered from earthquake rubble to form a river-like sculpture that takes over the entire floor of a room.

Solomon said her favorite piece is entitled Ye Haiyan's Belongings. It is an installation about Ye, a feminist activist in China whose belongings were removed from her house by the government and left by the side of the road. 

Ye Haiyan's Belongings (Gisele Regatao)

Solomon said she thinks the show is worth seeing — though not necessarily for the art. "I loved the show, I urge everyone to see it, I think he is a major social activist, and probably a less great artist," she said. Solomon said sometimes Ai's works is too blunt, ""but I think he does succeed in injecting politics into contemporary art and is a charismatic addition to the arts scene."

Do you agree? Leave your comment below.

Detail of Ai Weiwei's S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013 (Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio)

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Comments [16]

mark from Toronto

Can this guy do something small and interesting?

Apr. 19 2014 04:02 PM

The fact that there are 14 comments on an art story shows Ai Wei Wei is relevant at least. In order to be famous in art while you are alive you have to be controversial and Ai is doing that. If he was just doing some kind of sentimental Chinese version of pre-Raphaelite bull then no one would even post about it. On the other hand there's no way to know who will be influential in the future. If in 200 years Americans no longer have a taste for bashing the Chinese government his work may not really have a lasting importance.

Apr. 19 2014 09:33 AM
art525 from Park Slope

Dear Jessi- true art transcends it's time. We are interested in Egyptian art which is based on a religion that we have no understanding of. I admire and am moved by The Sistine Chapel though I am not the least bit engaged by the religious implications. We admire Picasso's Guernica even though the war against Franco is long over. Great art transcends all the topical issues. The problem for me is that while these are issues to be concerned with they are issues of the intellect, issues of the mind and when I got to art I want something that transcends our current stuggles and strife. I want an escape from this world we live in where we live in our heads. Today's art offers no counterpoint to the that way of being. It is all up in our heads. Yes I hate the oppression that Ai Weiwei and the Chinese are facing. Yes I hate the crimes against humanity I hear every day. But I'm sorry I don't think that the rarefied environment of an art gallery (or The Brooklyn Museum) is an effective soapbox for exposing those concerns. And furthermore I don't see how Ai Weiwei selling his work for hundreds of thousands of dollars fits in with those concerns.

Apr. 18 2014 01:09 PM
Jon Jacobs from Brooklyn

To Art125 from Park Slope: Reading your initial comment asserting a fundamental divide between "great art" as "something transcendent," and topical "events and ... social issues," the logical conclusion is that you must exclude Guernica from the "great art" side of that divide.

For your sake I hope you don't extend the same framework to the literary arts. Then you'd be consigning works such as Man's Fate by Malreaux and The Second Coming by Yeats (to name just the first two that popped instantly to mind) to the "topical, therefore not great art" category.

Apr. 18 2014 01:00 PM
Rosalyn Bodycomb from Long Island City

Thank you Deborah Solomon. Art is by nature a form of activism, it's difficult for some to discriminate between the two, but you've done it succinctly. I appreciate Ai Weiwei's work because it promotes awareness of social injustice in an artful way. If my response were in the reverse, I suppose I'd have to defend it as high art.

Apr. 18 2014 12:36 PM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Hello there Jessi from Brooklyn and ainslieb:

I think you misunderstood me! I loved the Ai Weiwei show. I didn't say that he is not an artist, but rather that his influence and talents as a social activist are greater than his talents as an artist.
He works in the long-familiar forms of Pop art and Minimalism, and he puts a marvelous spin on them. You can say he turns Donald Judd's box into a soap box.

Apr. 18 2014 12:19 PM

Happy to hear the piece about the exhibit this morning, as I went to the show last night and was blown away by the scope and the content. I did take pause at Deborah Solomon's description of Ai Wei Wei as more an activist than an artist. That seems a narrow definition of "artist."

Apr. 18 2014 11:49 AM
Jessi from Brooklyn, NY

Dear Art525 from Park Slope and Deborah Solomon:
It's difficult for me to understand what is meant by "he is a social activist and not an artist" and criticizing an artist for "making a statement". Art is always and inextricably a reflection of the values of a time and place, whether it's a painting of a wealthy patron among Christian saints, an idyllic vision of Tahitian life, or frank images of long-hidden female genitalia. I understand that some subjects can seem too "topical" and "of the moment", but if the craft is good, and with Ai Weiwei, I believe it is, the skill of the artist is to make the subject memorable, not the other way around. There is no single subject that makes a work transcendent; it is the mode of expression that does that. If the subject were the sole reason to criticize a work, then art would be altogether irrelevant and we should only rely on the thing itself and not its representation (maybe abstract expressionists would agree). But we don't do that because the artist has something to tell us about an event or idea, a situated vision that is different from, say, the art establishment, the government, or the culture in which s/he lives.

I bristle when critics dismiss artists for engaging with their culture. There is an implied assumption that there is some pure, artistic vision in the universe that somehow manages to escape mundane banalities like government incompetence and corruption leading to the death of an entire city's young generation (I am being sarcastic). If Ai Weiwei were to sculpt a memorial to the children in marble, carve their names and set it in a reflecting pool would the references to Warhol disappear and would his art somehow be less of a "statement"? The fact that he uses materials of the place (rebar) and of the moment (backpacks) doesn't detract from the gravitas of the work or its ability to "transcend". It only more accurately reflects the inescapable position of the artist. If he were to make a marble memorial - with the state's blessings and money - that would say something about him too. But he is an artist at odds with his government and his particular voice, skill, and craft are what make his work worth noting and remembering.

Apr. 18 2014 11:46 AM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Dear Jose from Queens,

Thanks for taking the time to write. I agree with you: Ai Weiwei favors sensual materials -- freshwater pearls, tea leaves, quaintly aged wood, etc. -- and that is part of the appeal of his work. But, going through the show, I sometimes wasn't sure whether the pieces were intended as a critique of consumerism or merely a replica of it. He has an oddly decorative touch. His brightly-splashed urns could have fallen out of the pages of a home furnishings catalogue.

Apr. 18 2014 11:34 AM
Jose from Queens

No ... there's no way you can say he is not a great artist. In fact he made his reputation in the Art World first, and became more active in politics later. That's why he's in so much trouble: because of his high profile in the West.

Ai has a very keen sense of materials and his work is simply sublime. Most artists wish they could make art with such facility. What Solomon calls blunt is not so much blunt as it is monumental. There is a sense of monumentality in his work that is hard to contain in the white cube.

Apr. 18 2014 11:09 AM
Cassilda from Lisbon, Portugal

Why not both? History of art is full of works which were considered so provocative, meaning dangerous for the "status quo", that their authors suffered prosecutions from society political powers and even put to death. (also illustrated by literature and poetry, music, theater and so on.). Art matters. Time will tell how much of an innovative and great artist Weiwei is, or not at least for sometime, since aesthetic judgments are subject to continuous revise.As for the moment,I can only judge from published images, the feeling component of space fails me. I like his works and conceptual work they suppose.

Apr. 18 2014 09:58 AM
deborah solomon from WNYC

Dear Art525 from Park Slope,

I agree with you entirely. When I look at those photographs of Ai Wai Wai smashing a Han vase that was probably at least 2,000 years old, I think: Adolescent.
Good art is not about smashing the past. It's about reinventing the past and extending a tradition, creating a space for a new generation of artists.
Have you heard of the restaurant chain Smashburger? It's okay to smash burgers. It's not okay to smash ancient urns.

Apr. 18 2014 09:19 AM
Art525 from Park Slope

Another thought- on that incident where someone smashed an antique vase in an Ai Weiwei show in imitation of Weiwei. It seems to me awkward and intellectually dishonest to arrest someone for imitating Mr Weiwei's act. If Mr Weiwei was justified in performing such a transgressive act how can he and his fans be upset by someone doing the same thing? I am reminded of Rauchenberg's act where he erased a deKooning drawing. Mr deKooning was a willing and cooperative participant. That was a class act. As I said before I think art has become to intellectual or maybe more accurately too pseudo intellectual. But if you go down that road you have to be intellectually consistent.

Apr. 18 2014 09:03 AM
Art525 from Park Slope

Well if I at all contributed to your having a good morning I'm glad. And thanks again for your piece and a little much needed perspective.

Apr. 18 2014 08:50 AM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Dear Art525 from Park Slope,

Thanks for your supportive comments and glad you think I got it right. It's eight in the morning and so far the day is going well!

Apr. 18 2014 07:57 AM
Art525 from Park slope

Well you got that right. I think he is a social activist and not an artist. Everything is too in his head and too interested in making a statement. I think great art deals with the inexpressible and transcends the everyday. Yes I think it's great to address those events and those social issues but for me great art is something transcendent. And I think that concept that every object is merchandise has become true and perfectly sums up what is wrong with the current art scene. And I do blame Warhol for that.

Apr. 18 2014 07:22 AM

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