When Art Was Dangerous

John Haber
in New York City

Ai Weiwei

Some political artists want to change the way you think. Ai Weiwei just wants you to relate.

The Chinese artist has paid dearly for asking you to listen. He has suffered house arrest and prison. He has been beaten, and he displays MRIs of his brain hemorrhage as a work of art. He presents his work as both documentary record and personal history. He ends up at once too detached and too sentimental, too literal and too eager to please. Yet he can still recover something precious about art, its dangers. Ai Weiwei's Colored Vases (Brooklyn Museum, 2007–2010)

Say what?

Ai Weiwei spent eighty-one days in prison, in 2011. He had not demanded an end to the regime for its record on human rights, because in China (face it) there are limits. Officials had even commissioned him as an artistic consultant to the Beijing National Stadium in 2008, and they encouraged his Shanghai studio as part of a growing arts district—although they soon enough tore it down. No, he had merely called China to account for the loss of life in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and indeed he had titled his exhibition in Munich the year before "So Sorry." For his retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, he fills a long wall with the names of dead children, ruled like a ledger. You may also stop to hear a recital of their names, for he feels so close that he can almost talk to them and hear them speak.

In his art, too, Ai wants to build a lasting foundation and to demand a personal response. One need not even enter the museum lobby to encounter his aspirations, in the weight of six iron boxes, as imposing as anything by Richard Serra. The same materials take the shape of milk cartons at the base of each one, and kids are among the first to climb up to peek into each box. When they do, they see a recreation of what Ai calls the six worst moments in his confinement, although they look ordinary enough. One may sense nothing more than the precious humanity of eating, sleeping, and using the toilet. One will not feel the threat of Serra's towering walls and flung lead.

One will, however, find it easy to respond, maybe even too easy. He covers a floor with rebar—more than seventy tons salvaged from the ruins, each bar painstakingly made straight. He has carpeted rooms in the past with sunflower seeds in hand-painted porcelain. When he spreads more than three thousand crabs in a circle of red and blue, because "river crabs" sounds like "harmonious" in Chinese, he is mocking the language of state propaganda. Yet he also cherishes the harmony, in opposition to a snake coiled on the ceiling above. As he lays his art flat to the floor, he is spreading its beauty, while also flattening the allusions.

As an artist, Ai aims for the heart. He even calls those boxes S.A.C.R.E.D. He also goes right for the literal, with its stark equation of Minimalism and brutality—or the pale realism of the props and fiberglass models within. He delegates much of the work to others, and he recycles it freely. His retrospective hardly bothers with chronology, as curated by Mami Kataoka of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and Brooklyn's Sharon Matt Atkins, for his art is almost always in the present, even when it recalls China's past. He borrows freely from others as well, as with the exhibition title, which quotes Jasper Johns and a jazz standard to question authority, "According to What?"

He borrows, too, from Chinese traditions, as with sculpture in precious woods. He can fairly claim tradition as a birth right. A rosewood box recalls one that belonged to his father, a poet denounced as a Rightist. A table in dark wood bears the outline of China, and a log has a similar map as a hole running from one end to the other. Loose tea takes on unexpected weight as houses. Naturally it also carpets the floor.

Ai appropriates so much that he may also destroy tradition. When a protestor in Miami smashed a vase, outraged that the museum did not exhibit more Latinos, the man shattered part of a work. Yet the artist had already painted over an antiquity from the Han dynasty—and charmingly at that, in splashes of industrial color. In photos, Ai even lets one vase fall to the floor, to call attention to the loss of the past at the hands of others. For the same reason, he paints one more vase with a Coca-Cola logo. Should one blame the destruction on him, capitalism, or China?

Taking time

Maybe all of the above, in an art that is often double edged but not necessarily edgy. Ai sustains a bad-ass attitude and a healthy sense of humor, as when he directs his middle finger at the camera. His friendly, banal style often holds a touch of cunning aggression. He is also, to his credit, first and foremost a visual artist, without the dependence on text art, conceptualism, crawl screens, and mass-media quotation of much political art in America. He is literal, but not dogmatic. One can enjoy his work for its irony or its innocence, because so plainly does he.

Born in 1957, Ai takes China's upheavals personally. His family went first to a labor camp and then into exile, from his very infancy until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Stacked, a huge figure 8 of bicycle wheels, recalls his childhood's most beloved possession. Yet photos of construction sites and video of the highway around Beijing testify to the brutal face of modernization, not so very far from pits and rebar after the earthquake. Ai also opposed the 2008 Olympics for tearing up old neighborhoods, and he quickly distanced himself from stadium plans. For him, the loss of traditions slips easily into the loss of lives, the loss of freedoms, and the loss of possessions.

For a time, Ai wrote off the loss, moving to New York for more than a decade. They were the years of fiscal crises and East Village art, and he took thousands of images. They were my first years out of college, too, in a more affordable city. Like me then or like subjects for Farley Aguilar, his are hanging out more than posing, in subways, alleyways, and storefronts. From the young in Tomkins Square to the police on Park Avenue, everyone seems a work in progress. So was Ai's art, which is nowhere in sight.

On a facing wall, photos pick up where the New York series leaves off, with his return to China in 1993, but in no less random a fashion. He does better when he converts loss into narrative. A video tells of a woman separated from her family, as a way around China's single-child policy, and later death of AIDS. Ye Haiyan's Belongings gathers everything that a feminist owned when the state evicted her, from books and DVDs to t-shirts and phone chargers. It parallels the display of baggage by another global traveler, Isa Genzken. Here, though, it serves as a true portrait, and it thrives on particulars.

The element of time enters the carpeting of rebar as well—like the post-industrial wasteland of the contemporary Chinese art in "Tales of Our Time." Straight varies in height, like a wave of rusted iron rippling across the floor. It takes time, too, to gather the ruins and to make them straight, an ongoing project at that. Since Ai's retrospective opened in Japan and then at the Hirshhorn, the work weighs several tons more. Its mass points to the balance of caring and danger in his best work. But can it lose its dangers?

Yes, art is dangerous. I thought I would never say that again, for all the dead sharks, carnival rides, pretend shocks, and trashed galleries. It was dangerous enough to get the artist and human-rights activist beaten and arrested, although I realize that is easier in China. It can also be physically dangerous, to the point that a museum had to change plans for an exhibition to avert a health hazard. To see why and to get a better sense of the dangers and their limits, turn the clock back to two installations that have traveled to New York before.

The seeds of danger

Starting in October 2010, Ai carpeted Tate Modern with his hand-painted porcelain, as if determined to grind Arlene Shechet to dust. Even on the scale of a New York gallery in 2012, Sunflower Seeds looked every ounce of its five and one-half tons. It formed a strict rectangle a few inches thick, like an architectural plinth, with room to circulate by the walls. One could lean in to admire the precisely tapered edges and the artistry. Then, too, one could stand back as the tiny traces blended into a drab speckled gray. Just as likely, visitors could find themselves contemplating each other.

Ai meant one to walk on the seeds and to loll in them. He meant to transform the vast "turbine hall" into nature. Unfortunately, the museum decided, visitors might breathe China's landscape and traditions a little too deeply, as human traffic crushed porcelain into dust. Instead of an intimate environment at one's feet, they became an object of contemplation—an anti-Carl Andre. Instead of an installation, they became an enormously weighty sculpture. I was hoping that in Chelsea, in private hands, one could enter at last, but no.

One could still appreciate the homage to tradition, coupled with a critique of capitalism's "Chinese miracle." The millions of black-and-white strokes share the anonymity of factory labor. But wait, how does one know that it is not the other way around? Perhaps one was seeing a swipe at nature and a hymn to capitalist exploitation? Surely one should give the weight, the architecture, and so exclusive a gallery their due reverence. Almost a year before in the same space, Terence Koh circulated a floor piece, like a gallery-goer for Ai but dressed as a Buddhist priest and on his knees.

It was not easy to pose in front of Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals, in the summer of 2011, without tumbling into the Pulitzer Fountain, although tourists and other brave souls gave it a game try. The twelve animal heads, one for each sign of the Chinese zodiac, faced Central Park in a gentle arc that brought the ends close to earth. Larger than life, they rose out of the water on stands that morph into something rather like water lilies. At once animal, vegetable, and mineral, they also belong as much to history as to myth. They mimic eighteenth-century heads (for, yes, a fountain) swept off to Europe in the Opium Wars, and at last notice the continents were still fighting for those. They taunt the West for its cultural imperialism, just when many in the West were speaking out on his behalf and embracing his first public sculpture.

Attendants were present to guide the curious through the story. And the week his sculpture came down, after a Sunday of record rains, a headline in The Daily News pounced on a worthy successor to its dangers: Rats as Big as "Rabbits" Overrun Grand Army Plaza Park Near Plaza Hotel—and of course the bronze zodiac includes both a rat and, yes, a rabbit. Still, for better or worse, gentleness wins out over subtextual arcana or biting the hand that feeds him. I could not look at the dragon without smiling, and I could not look at the snarling tiger and dog without wanting to climb into the water and pet them.

In both works, one has the sheen, the craft, and the still-unfulfilled promise of shared experience, but mostly one just knows. One knows that its heart is in the right place because of the artist. One knows because the very weight flatters one's expectations. And that is part of the problem in Brooklyn as well. Ai is at once a savvy artist, a surpriser, a survivor, and a natural-born crowd pleaser. He may court serious danger, but he always ends up with just a little too much safety, simplicity, and weight.

BACK to John's arts home page


Ai Weiwei ran at The Brooklyn Museum through August 10, 2014. His New York photographs ran at Asia Society through August 14, 2011, and his sculpture in the fountain through July 15. His porcelain seeds ran at Mary Boone through February 4, 2012. I wrote about those shows at the time, and I have rewritten those reviews to integrate them here, for a fuller appreciation. A related review looks again at Ai Weiwei in 2017, with his fences around New York.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME