I’m sitting on the floor next to Ai Weiwei’s installation, STRAIGHT, made of 38 tons of steel rebar. The security guard looks in my direction puzzled at my actions but I guess he senses and understands that I want to take a perspective from the ground looking up towards the wall of names. Each of the names, 5000 of them all mentioned one after another on the wall and in audio. The names of the 5000 school age children who tragically lost their lives in the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, China in 2008. Each name read clearly as I sat on the floor. No other sounds in the room except for the cluster of art camp kids asking questions in the same space, who are on a guided tour. I am taking this all in.
This is just one of 40+ works of art currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in the latest exhibition. Ai Weiwei: According to What? brings some of the artist most well-known works of art and installations that are represented in sculptures, photography, video and audio. Known for his larger installations this exhibit includes seven MOON CHESTS (eighty-one were created in total) that are precisely positioned and aligned to created the moon phases.
A new installation, HE XIE displays 3000 hand-painted porcelain crabs on the floor of the gallery space. He Xie literally translates to “river crab,” but it also sounds like the word “harmonious” which is used in the Chinese Communist Party slogan “the realization of a harmonious society.” When it was announced that Ai Weiwei’s studio in Shanghai was going to torn down in 2010, Ai invited guests and called for support via social media to feast on 10,000 crabs in protest. It become the online term referring to online censorship. Ai himself was unable to attend having being placed under house arrest by the government.
The exhibition is worth seeing in person. However if you don’t know much about the artist you may be interested in viewing the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Mongrel Media) currently available on Netflix.
Aside from the exhibit, the AGO has planned several events and talks around Ai Weiwei: According to What?
On September 5th, the AGO will have a live chat with Ai Weiwei via video stream with AGO’s Director and CEO, Matthew Teitelbaum. This is a special event as part of their popular AGO First Thursday Art Parties. The event includes access to the exhibition as well as the other exhibition halls in the Gallery. It’s a 19+ event with bar service and live entertainment. Tickets are sold online now at AGO FIRST THURSDAYS .
Ai Weiwei: According to What? is on until October 27, 2013 at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto). For more information on the exhibition, events, talks and discussions visit www.ago.net/aiweiwei/ for all the details.
Ai Weiwei is an artist with a very new kind of visibility. He has transcended his artwork to become a worldly figure who, for many, symbolizes the assertion of a freedom of expression against great odds. Using the fame and recognition garnered by his art, he has taken on issues that could not be raised publically in China.
The AGO will be the sole Canadian stop for the first major survey in North America of Ai Weiwei’s work. At a time when the artist’s physical movements continue to be restricted (the Chinese government is holding his passport), this provocative exhibition — organized in close collaboration with Ai Weiwei and his studio — will offer visitors another way to interact with the artist and his ideas. While providing a vital connection to the absent artist, the exhibition is also a reminder that Ai Weiwei’s more recent political activism finds its roots in the aesthetic transgressions of his art.
Ai Weiwei: According to What? examines how the artist sees the complexities of a changing world and explores such issues as freedom of expression, individual and human rights, the power of digital communication, and the range of creative practice that characterizes contemporary art today.
In advance of the exhibition opening, the AGO installed Snake Ceiling (2009) in the Margaret & Jim Fleck Gallery on Level 2. Ai Weiwei made this gigantic undulating reptile out of hundreds of children’s backpacks. The sculpture is a response to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, in which thousands of people—many of them children—lost their lives in poorly built schools that collapsed around them. Moved by all the children’s knapsacks found amid the rubble during the recovery effort, Ai Weiwei led an investigation into the earthquake tragedy and researched the names of as many of the victims as possible. This activity eventually brought him into conflict with the authorities.
Ai has been the recipient of numerous grants, honours and awards, most recently in 2012 the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation. He is consistently included in top artist and human rights lists, including GQ Men of the Year in 2009 (Germany); the Art Review Power 100, rank one in 2011; and runner up in Time’s Person of the Year in 2011. Ai Weiwei helped establish Beijing East Village in 1993, co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse in 1997 and founded the architecture studio FAKE Design in 2003. He studied at the Beijing Film Academy, Parsons School of Design and Art Students League of New York; upon returning to China he collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games.