Ai Weiwei, Template, 2007, wooden doors and windows from destroyed Ming- and Qing-dynasty houses (1368–1911), 13' 10“ x 36' 3 1⁄2” x 28' 8 1⁄2".

Ai Weiwei, Template, 2007, wooden doors and windows from destroyed Ming- and Qing-dynasty houses (1368–1911), 13' 10“ x 36' 3 1⁄2” x 28' 8 1⁄2".

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Template, 2007, wooden doors and windows from destroyed Ming- and Qing-dynasty houses (1368–1911), 13' 10“ x 36' 3 1⁄2” x 28' 8 1⁄2".

AS AI WEIWEI CAN TELL YOU, the Chinese government, whenever it feels unduly criticized, has a tendency to protest that the critic is “hurting the feelings of the people.” Ai’s mega-exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, titled “So Sorry,” was a fearless, if sometimes grandiose, rejoinder to this feeble remonstrance—more or less the equivalent of the artist’s infamous art-world motto, “Fuck off.” That this spectacular exhibition, which was timed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, took place in what was once Hitler’s official museum of German art underscores the passion of Ai’s personal insurgency against what he regards as the moral corruption of the Chinese Communist Party.

By now many will know that in August of last year, police broke into the artist’s hotel room in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, at 3 am, arrested him (along with five friends in the same hotel), punched him in the head, and detained him. The reason? He had intended to go to court the next day to show support for Tan Zuoren, an activist on trial for subversion (and since sentenced to five years in prison). Tan had incurred the government’s wrath by advocating transparency about the deaths that occurred on May 12, 2008, when an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale struck the province. Like Tan, Ai was intent on full disclosure. His overriding project for months had been to compile and publicize the names of the roughly five thousand children whose substandard school buildings had crushed them to death when the earthquake hit. Believing that any government owes its citizens an accounting of the dead in a disaster, especially when its own corrupt building practices contributed directly to tens of thousands of fatalities, Ai endeavored to locate and interview the parents of each of the dead children, ascertaining the child’s name, age, sex, school, home address, and so forth. Some hundred volunteers joined the effort, and his blog become a repository of the names and a de facto memorial site until it was shut down in May 2009.

This is the backstory to Ai’s visit this past September to a doctor in Munich, where he was installing “So Sorry.” The artist, complaining of worsening dizziness and headaches, was advised to undergo immediate surgery to relieve pressure on the brain caused by hemorrhaging—a potentially fatal condition. From his hospital bed after surgery, he posted pictures of his bandaged and draining head wound to his Twitter feed, images that found their way into the international press. Within days, a museum official announced that Ai was still planning to attend his opening in early October. He had risen from the nearly dead.

“So Sorry” gathered considerable force by drawing on the historical memory embedded in the authoritarian scale and severe fascisto-classicism of the Haus der Kunst. Though no longer, of course, consecrated to the art of a master race, its halls are still haunted by its architects’ intentions, which are expressed even now in the succession of monumental gallery spaces that diminish the individual in contrast to the overweening proportions of state ambition. The remnant of a ruined state, Haus der Kunst was the perfect setting for Ai’s ambition to officially occupy symbolic ground.

Many of the works in “So Sorry” were familiar from the blogosphere and art-world press, but they had seldom been encountered together: Qing-dynasty tables and chairs skewered by the huge wooden pillars of destroyed ancient temples; a massive gray porcelain bowl on the floor filled with 176 pounds of sparkling freshwater pearls; a one-ton mound of porcelain sunflower seeds, each sculpted, painted, and fired by hand; an enormous cube made of metal, lights, and refractory crystal; a cluster of Neolithic pots, each dipped in pastel-colored industrial house paint; a glass jar filled with the soft brown powder of finely ground ancient pottery; several ironwood “maps” of China (also pieced together from destroyed Qing temples) rising up from the ground to various heights like petrified extrusions from the other side of the world; a Qing table broken down and reassembled, using traditional joinery techniques, into a three-legged corner unit that seems to kick, kung fu–like, at the walls and floors of the museum; twenty wooden Qing stools hand-joined in a spatial sweep that opens in three directions simultaneously, kind of like a scorpion raising its claws and tail in defense or—a related gestalt—like another prickly map of China; a row of large color photographs of the “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing, taken during different phases of its construction; and black-and-white photographs from the 1980s and early ’90s in New York, where Ai lived until 1993, documenting his streetwise self-schooling in the arts, including the iconic double portrait of his young self and his old friend Allen Ginsberg sitting like a couple of expatriate Buddhas in a Japanese restaurant.

These and other works coalesced around a massive new installation of twisted tree trunks and gnarled roots gathered from all over China and set like the blasted stumps of a war-torn battlefield on a tan wool rug. Vast but nearly invisible, the carpet simulated the tan stone tiles in the gallery floor beneath it. (On the walls surrounding this dreamscape were the photographs of the 1,001 people from China Ai brought to Kassel for Documenta 12 in 2007.) Every crack, discoloration, and tile line was at once concealed and mimicked by this remarkable faux-transparent surface. Commissioned from a state-owned textile factory that makes giant rugs for official buildings in China, the carpet was an unapologetic testament to the Chinese capacity for copying as a form of creating. Its more potent symbolism, though, was that of replacing the hard floor in Hitler’s museum with a softer ground that muted the hall’s boot-slap acoustics and invited a shoeless, contemplative meander that felt elevated, as if walking on clouds, but also subterranean, as if burrowing through tortured root systems and maneuvering past violently truncated stumps. The soft ground gave way to an uprooted landscape as Ai plowed through a psychic terrain that split earth and sky. Somehow, he cut across and exposed a striation of history that is both German and Chinese—battlegrounds of subconscious history and of historical consciousness. The threshold between them is like the difference between a tangled root and a scholar’s rock.

Germany has been good to Ai. In 2007 at Documenta, its skies blew down his Template in a thunderstorm. An octagonal intersection of standing walls draped with the wooden doors, windows, and screens of demolished Ming and Qing houses, the work had contained at its core a negative profile of a Chinese temple. The German engineers were afraid it would fall; Ai was confident in the skills of his Chinese workers. When it folded earthward as if pressed by the hand of God, Ai claimed it as his art without hesitation. Then he took it back to Beijing and had his craftsmen rebuild according to the architecture of collapse. In his hangarlike studio east of town, Ai used photographs and drawings of the twisted beams to hew new ones that were twisted by design. In Munich this winter, the eight-winged temple lay in a heap, but this time by the artist’s hand. It looked as slow and stubborn as an iceberg crushing a wooden ship. Ai’s reclamation of structural failure was neither the appointment of a readymade nor the acceptance of fate, but because he rebuilt the work as fallen, it was a challenge to the forces of nature that had brought it down. “I don’t think there is a higher power beyond my will,” he has said.

From the basement of the Haus der Kunst, where mechanical and electric controls from the 1930s look so fresh as to turn back the clock to a moment when Bauhaus optimism mixed with fascist determinism, Ai and some of his assistants celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic by tweeting a handwritten epithet in Chinese: “Fuck the motherland.” The cover of a German magazine that published an interview with Ai depicted the face of Ai digitally morphed with that of Hu Jintao, the president of China. More than once in Munich, Ai was publicly asked by Chris Dercon, the museum director and the curator of “So Sorry,” whether he was hoping to serve the people in political office, and he never quite said no. Beneath these barbed, sometimes gratuitous provocations burns a fierce desire to speak openly. Ai’s works—not only his sculptures but also his activism, his architecture, his surgery, his blogging, his tweeting, and his public posturing—constitute a rhetoric of struggle that reverses the progressive syntax of Marxist theory, turning it against itself, slicing back through Chinese history, and leaving in its wake a kunsthalle filled with ruins: with things that are broken, uprooted, exposed, faked, flattened, turned inside out in time and upside down in space. It’s as if his works were arguing against themselves, a parody of the dialogic mind.

Few major artists today, were they to have such a large retrospective in such a vast exhibition hall, would exhibit the raw appetite to devour its spaces with so much hungry imagination. Ai’s creativity is ferocious and fearless. Its style is preposterous, impolitic, even violent. Because it feeds on the spaces it occupies, it gathers energy like a vortex, leaving in its wake a kind of aesthetic wreckage we mostly think of as sculpture or quasi architecture. Everything he designs embodies a state of near collapse. The best of Ai’s work perpetually pivots at a tipping point. Taken as a whole, his art enacts the workings of a nascent Chinese democracy, which, in its discursive liberties, sometimes hurts the feelings of the people and is necessarily “so sorry.”

Based in Oakland, CA, Jeff Kelley is a critic and independent curator of contemporary Chinese art.