Missing in Action

Left: Ai Weiwei's Forever Bicycles in the Hirshhorn lobby. Right: Mori Art Museum chief curator Mami Kataoka and Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher. (All photos: Lee Ambrozy)

THE UNSPOKEN RULE of social engagements in Beijing dictates that the most important guests on the list are those who are invited but who cannot come, because another, more important engagement keeps them away. At the recent opening of Ai Weiwei’s first US museum retrospective at the Hirshhorn, alas, the artist proved his importance by not being in attendance. Still stripped of his passport and unable to leave China, upcoming events across the East Coast were canceled, including a talk in defense of free speech at the PEN World Voices Festival and scheduled panels at Harvard’s Fairbank Center and Princeton University. Happily, despite these setbacks, his lifestyle under house arrest and constant surveillance made mild progress last month when he was allowed to leave Beijing for the first time since his eighty-one-day detention in spring 2011. His continued success and prolific output in spite of limitations on his freedom are testament to the fact that, when art is motivated by a higher, political cause, a lot can be accomplished in absentia. If it matters, Ai never goes to openings in his hometown either.

But Ai was sorely missed. The Hirshhorn show is the first location of a four-stop museum tour, and showing in the US capital added a special political dimension to his art, which now seems inextricable from his activism. A smattering of his works are spread across the entire second floor of Gordon Bunshaft’s cylindrical museum, from early NYC photography to his later installations, like a swarming pile of ceramic “river crabs” (a Chinese pun on “harmony,” meaning to “silence” someone’s dissenting voice), and rebar reclaimed from the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. (Versions of the same new works just went on view at Mary Boone Gallery in New York.)

During the opening’s early hours, the works seemed to outnumber the guests. Ethan Cohen, the NYC dealer who gave Ai his first show in the 1980s, was inspired––grabbing my elbow, he raced with me through the claustrophobic hall to the end of the exhibition. We halted before two black-and-white photographs from the “Studies in Perspective” series, which I’m told were hung in this location at the artist’s behest: One features the artist’s middle finger saluting Tiananmen Square, the other, the same finger at attention before the White House. Perhaps this isn’t merely about China. Cohen implied that the Chinese might take the insult personally, or maybe audiences in DC would assume that his brand of criticism was reserved for China, but having both of these on display in the US capital . . . “You can do this kind of thing in the US, and Weiwei was impressed by that.”

Left: FAKE Studio's E-Shyh Wong, collector Larry Warsh, and Nadine Stenke of neugerriemschneider gallery. Right: Dealer Ethan Cohen and Lou Sagar of Friends of Ai Weiwei.

Upstairs, beside the enormous, showy Cube Light that is now a part of the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection, collector Urs Meile surprised me by arguing that this is Ai’s most complicated show to date. (Quite a feat considering past projects, like the one hundred million ceramic sunflower seeds at the Tate, or Fairytale, featuring 1,001 Chinese travelers to Kassel.) I was struck by how many of the Hirshhorn works evinced a heady copiousness: 160,000 crystals strung onto lights, thirty-eight tons of reclaimed rebar, five thousand names, two enormous bowls of innumerable freshwater pearls, and a floor covered two-inches thick in pu’er tea leaves. It simply couldn’t be “Chinese art” without some impressive statistics.

The party retired to a hors d’oeuvres–style dinner in a tent outside in the sculpture garden. There were rumors that corporate sponsors were put off by the exhibition’s controversial nature, but this was also the first such party that the museum had ever hosted. After Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek thanked the board for “allowing” them to do “this kind of show,” I ran into E-Shyh Wong, the representative from Beijing’s FAKE office, whose father once gave an impoverished Ai money when he was broke and living in New York. Mori Museum chief curator Mami Kataoka spoke about her own work on the show and all the requisite sadness was expressed at the artist’s absence, when finally, in a corner of the room where Mary Boone and Tom Arnold were holding court at perhaps the only proper sit-down tables under the tent, a screen lit up with a prerecorded video postcard from Beijing. Dressed in trademark casual blue-grays, Ai spoke in his charming broken English, apologized for his absence, and invited criticism from the audience about the show itself.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Zbigniew Brzezinski, curator Roger M. Buergel, and Judy Woodruff.

There wasn’t much in the way of criticism at a Hirshhorn-hosted panel on “art and social change” the next afternoon. The discussion featured Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and curator Roger M. Buergel (of Documenta 12), with news anchor Judy Woodruff moderating. “It’s a nice break from the presidential campaign,” she opened before the packed auditorium hall. Brzezinski was former US security advisor to the Carter administration, and is known not only for helping normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, but also for encouraging dissidents to undermine the Soviet Union. Clearly well read on Ai’s blog writings, he cited them several times, also stressing the importance of the US-China relationship. Not surprisingly, throughout the discussions, the visual arts seemed like mere afterthoughts to musings on Ai’s sociopolitical significance.

Buergel expressed what looked like mild irritation at the conflation of Ai’s work with freedom of speech. He warned about taking quotes out of context—using them as “stand-in for a discourse”—and the dangers of over-politicizing Ai’s oeuvre. Spivak obsessed over a Heideggerian interpretation of Ai’s work, arguing that the “meaning is in the use,” and eventually drawing parallels between Ai and Gandhi. Brzezinski, ever the diplomat, described Ai’s detention as one of those “occasional manifestations of repression,” while leveraging criticism at the “far from perfect” democracy in the US. There was an acknowledgment about potential issues regarding inequality of access to digital technologies, but the speakers were generally in agreement: Ai is an instance where digital media functions as social medicine rather than poison.

Brzezinski reminded us that totalitarian societies were the first to shamelessly employ art in the service of politics, paraphrasing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said that, for a writer, exile is a fate worse than death. My mind instantly flashed back to Ai’s middle finger, triumphant and irreverent before both the Tiananmen gate and the White House. Whatever the artist left unsaid would be veiled in his absence; he may be imprisoned in some sense, but at least he’s not in exile.