So how did the Indianapolis Museum of Art become one of only five museums in North America to land the first major exhibit featuring the controversial Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei?
The rebellious artist — known for his constant objections to his government’s infringement on civil and human rights — is making international news at the moment. He has just released a heavy-metal music video that re-creates scenes from his 2011 imprisonment and he has just introduced new pieces of installation art at the 55th Venice Art Biennale.
In one of them, realistic scenes from his incarceration are captured in large metal boxes. Visitors can peek inside to view Ai sleeping or going to the toilet, always with guards watching. Another of his creations involved 886 wooden stools titled “Bang.” You’ll see a smaller version of that sculpture in Indianapolis.
Ai, 56, often makes use of traditional Chinese crafts or objects — like the stools that are often handed down through the generations.
“He takes these objects from the past and rearranges them and reformulates them to cast them in a new light and to say materials are always on their way from being one thing to being another,” explained Sarah Urist Green, curator of contemporary art at the IMA. “Our job in the present is to figure out and determine how to live with the past or how to reject it.”
On June 22, the second anniversary of Ai’s release from detention, he’ll release an album titled “The Divine Comedy.” He has been active on the Internet for years; after his blog was shut down in 2009, he turned to Twitter and Tumbler.
His name, by the way, is pronounced “I-Way-Way,” and in China the family name is listed first.
Indianapolis exhibit is diverse
Although there is a lot that’s fascinating about his background and his politics, you don’t need to know a lot about either to enjoy and appreciate the striking works of contemporary art now on display in the Allen Whitehill Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery. “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” will be at the Indianapolis Museum through July 21. It will then travel to Toronto, Miami and the Brookyn Museum in New York.
“What I loved about the exhibit was the diversity of his work,” said Nora Newsock of Washington Twp., who saw the exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, where it had its North American premiere. “I liked the vast range of his work — including the photographs — and I think it’s wonderful that he expresses himself through so many artistic media.”
The 30 pieces of art on display include photos, sculpture, videos and architectural installations. Ai gained international recognition for his work on the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. You’ll encounter a mound of 3,000 porcelain crabs, a sculpture formed from 42 bicycles, a collection of 100 photos taken in the years when the artist lived in New York City in the 1980s. The three fragrant houses made of compressed tea are just amazing.
In one of his most famous portraits, Ai is shown dropping a precious Han dynasty vase in an attempt to show the ways in which tradition must be transformed and challenged. In Indianapolis, those photos are dramatically set behind a colorful collection of Han dynasty vases dipped in colorful industrial paints.
In the film titled, “So Sorry,” Ai documents a period in his life in which he is developing the Sichuan earthquake project. One of the works that resulted from that is a new sculpture made from steel re-bar that was salvaged from schools destroyed during the 2008 earthquake. It calls attention to the shoddy construction that many believe was responsible for the disproportionate number of deaths of school children.
Ai Weiwei led a citizen’s investigation to gather the names of all of those who died and a dramatic wall at the exhibit lists more than 5,000 names of those youngsters. They are read aloud one at a time in Chinese.
“A name is the first and final marker of individual rights,” the artist has written. “One fixed part of the ever-changing human world.”
Originally organized by the Mori Art Museum in close collaboration with Ai Weiwei and his studio, this exhibit premiered in Tokyo in 2009 and was then re-configured to include more recent works before being brought to North America.
Credit for bringing the exhibit to the Midwest goes to Green who had followed Ai Weiwei’s work and for years and dreamed of showing it someday. She says it has been seen very little in the United States.
“He was always known for his political activism,” she explained. “I first learned of his work when I was working at a gallery in Chicago in 2003. The contemporary Chinese art market was booming at that time and a lot of artists were popular and doing well. But he was doing more conceptual art that wasn’t so much appealing to the collectors. He was looking at reality and the challenges of transforming China, which was destroying historic buildings and modernizing its cities.”
When Green visited Beijing in 2004, she paid a visit to Ai Weiwei’s studio complex and was struck by the architecture, the physical plant and the man himself.
“He was very warm and personable; he loves animals,” she said. “I remember I actually saw much of his work while I was there, and I saw pieces that were precursors to the work that would eventually be in the show. “
Green says Ai Weiwei’s art is important because it makes the monolithic country of China very personal and brings issues of contemporary Chinese life to the fore — issues such as culture, history, politics and tradition.
“He likes to call attention to individuals,” she said. “His idea was to go to the best porcelain artists and woodworkers and commission work that would further their traditions at a time when those traditions were being erased from modern Chinese life.”
‘AiPads’ enhance visitor experience
In contrast to the old crafts are the iPads (dubbed AiPads) located in the galleries that can help you learn more about Ai Weiwei. Before the exhibit opened, folks at IMA asked Ai questions about his life, his practice and his passions. Video responses he provided are available at stations and at www.imamuseum.org/accordingtoaiweiwei
Questions range from “What inspires you to be an activist?” to “Why do you remain in China?” Visitors are encouraged to provide their own reactions after watching his responses, and you’ll see selected comments by visitors and by Ai displayed on a screen above the computer station.
Green says the 12,500 square foot exhibit — the largest in the Indianapolis museum’s history — has received positive reaction from the public and that crowds have been higher than originally projected.
“This exhibit doesn’t just appeal to an art audience,” said Green, who added that the exhibit is drawing a much wider crowd than usual. “I’m hearing from people from different parts of the community who don’t normally come to our shows—people who are interested in politics, human rights, international relations. You don’t have to be an art connoisseur to find points of entry into his work.”
How to Go
What: “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”
When: Through July 21. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, Indianapolis
Admission: Museum admission is free. Tickets for the special exhibit are $12, $6 for children ages 7-17 and free for members and children 6 and younger.
Also: Docent tours — without advance reservations — are held regularly. Chinese interpreted tours also are available. A film, Ai Weiwei’s “Fairytale” will be shown at 7 p.m. June 27 at the museum. Tickets are $9 for the public, $5 for members.
For more information: (317) 923-1331 or visit www.imamuseum.org
IS IT WORTH THE DRIVE?
Dayton Daily News lifestyle, arts and entertainment reporter Meredith Moss has been discovering and sharing special events and interesting outings with newspaper readers for more than three decades.
In her series, Worth the Drive, Meredith visits special exhibits across the region and gives you an inside look at what to expect so you can make sure your time and money are well spent.
For today’s story, Moss traveled to Indianapolis to learn more about an artist who is currently making news throughout the world.