Critics’ Picks

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008–12
, steel rebar, dimensions variable.

Washington, DC

Ai Weiwei

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue at Seventh Street, SW
October 7 - February 24

In the first major US survey of Ai Weiwei’s work, Mori Art Museum curator Mami Kataoka has added to her 2009 Mori exhibition, to produce an insightful and thought-provoking installation that leads one to look beyond the artist’s recent difficulties in China, and think more broadly about the intertwined roles of art, history, and politics.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 2010, in the courtyard and Forever, 2003, in the main lobby serve as an introduction, but it is not until one arrives at the slithering reptile of Snake Ceiling, 2009, wending its way across the ceiling, that one begins to see the expanse of the exhibition. Composed of backpacks of varying sizes, the snake serves as a pendant to Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, 2008–11, a memorial to the young victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that is hauntingly similar to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall just a few blocks away. Entering an adjacent room brings immediate contrast, as it is filled with pictures of the National Olympic Stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Games. In just a few steps, one perceives Ai the Conceptual artist, the activist, and the architect, as well as the themes that have seen him as favorite (the Bird’s Nest) and enemy (Sichuan earthquake–related works) of the Chinese state.

The Hirshhorn’s circular architecture, well used in this installation, leads visitors through a loop of Ai’s career. His use of wood from Qing dynasty temples, pu’er tea, and freshwater pearls evokes China’s complex history. Carefully chosen quotes and documentary photographs of Ai’s life in New York between 1983 and 1993 and his return to Beijing in 1993 give a sense of Ai’s playfulness but also highlight the seriousness of his critique. In fact, the most compelling works are the ones that have led to his recent troubles with the Chinese authorities. The new work, Straight, 2008–12, for instance, takes steel rebar from the sites of the collapsed schools in which more than five thousand children perished during the 2008 earthquake. The now straightened rebar eerily echoes Minimalist sculpture and, as Ai notes, people’s inability to “stand straight.”