Ai Weiwei on Truth, Beauty and Futility

According to What?, a retrospective of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Ai Weiwei

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

English poet John Keats penned these lines at the end of Ode to a Grecian Urn as a declarative statement made by an inanimate object. The poem details the innate artificiality of art. The world on the urn is static, held in time a “foster-child of silence and slow time”. The poem asserts that the price of immortality—the absence of death requires the absence of life.

Roughly 175 years later, Chinese artist dissident Ai Weiwei created one of his most famous works, a photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. In this work, Weiwei articulates the same paradox. Each image is static—unmoving. In a sense the images arrest the urn. Each moment infinite—the cost of this infinity is stillness.

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Ritual (detail), 2011-2013. From
the work S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013. (1644-1911),
One of six dioramas in fiberglass and iron, 148 3/8 x 78 x 60 1/5 in.
(377 x 198 x 153 cm). Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studios. © Ai Weiwei

Both works frustrate their audience because they can be read as sincere or subversions. Keats terminates his stack of paradoxes and contradictions by having had the object speak. This statement can be read two ways. If read as a critique of the world it depicts, the statement is a beautiful deceit. If an extension of talking about the world the poet inhabits, it can be read as a truthful lament.

Truths and beauties grapple throughout According to What?, a retrospective of Chinese dissident artist Weiwei currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Not only is the notion a motif that repeats through many of the pieces included in the exhibition, it is perhaps the central conflict of Weiwei’s career.

Weiwei is both a virtuoso object designer and an astute documentarian. Each aspect of his personality is embodied in two or three works in the exhibition. Two pieces demonstrate his ability to design exquisite objects: Divina Proportione, (2006) and F-Size (2011). In these two works the artist combines pentagons and hexagons into a sphere. The spheres are made using an ancient method of Chinese woodcarving, and have no glue or nails.

While these pieces have a Dadaist root, they are in fact inspired by toys he purchased for his cats to play with. The polished finish of the wood accents its variation in hue. The play of two and three dimensional forms keeps the viewer engaged. Finally, there is a perfect balance of pattern. It is complex enough to be a bit of a puzzle, but simple enough to be legible within the piece. These are near perfect explorations on what visual elements humans find beautiful.

Weiwei is also a fierce documentarian. An almost psychopathic fixation on details and recording of data informs his political works. His video work, Chang’an Boulevard (2004) illustrates just how detailed and exact he can be. In 2004, Weiwei captured a minute of video every 55 yards along Chang’an Boulevard, a 45 kilometer road that transects Beijing. Weiwei attempts to frame the video as objectively as possible. The horizon is kept at about 50 percent of the frame. The camera looks directly down the road. A total of 608 one-minute clips comprise the entire video, which runs with titles for ten hours and 13 minutes. It seems paradoxical that these two pieces came from the imagination of one man.

The spheres and video do share one characteristic, however; they both reflect the Weiwei’s obsession with authenticity. Like Keats, Weiwei challenges his audience on what being authentic means. A lot of his work is deeply influenced by Dadaist and Pop art. This creates a tension. Authentic Dada is an oxymoron. It’s the equivalent of classical punk rock or orthodox subversion. Ultimately—the only way to perpetuate Dadaism is to reinvent it. In Safe Sex (1986), Weiwei cuts a hole in a rubber coat and inserts a condom. The use of manufactured objects and its mannered vulgarity makes it a traditional Dadaist work. Safe Sex’s connection to the AIDS pandemic gives it a specific, sincere political context not prominent in the absurdist banality of Dada.

Similarly, in Profile of Marcel Duchamp in a Coat Hanger (1986), Duchamp bends a coat hanger into a face profile. This piece demonstrates classical rendering skills—again, fairly antithetical to Dada.

There are several pieces in the exhibition in which Weiwei seamlessly merges Western aesthetics with Chinese cultural history. In 1919 Marcel Duchamp created L.H.O.O.Q., in which the artist drew a beard and mustache on a post-card reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Like most of Duchamp’s work—the piece involves linguistic punning, subverting hierarchy and documenting the erosion of hierarchies through the ability to reproduce an image.

Weiwei incorporates all of these elements in at least one work in the exhibition. In Chateau Lafite (1988), he brackets a wine bottle with a pair of sandals, a clear pun on “lafite” which is pronounced “la feet”. In Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo (1994) Weiwei paints a Coca-Cola logo over a Neolithic Age (5000-3000 BC) vase. The work resonates with both conceptual and formal economy. Like in L.H.O.O.Q, the work alters a cultural icon. Weiwei replaces Duchamp’s banality with a crisp political image. The piece articulates a new imperialism—instead of using armies to occupy and subvert culture, capitalism just changes citizens into consumers.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. 2012. Top: Dropping of Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. Triptych of Lambda prints, each 75 3/8 x 70 7/8 in. (191.5 x 180 cm). Bottom: Colored Vases, 2007

The exhibition also included Colored Vases (2007 to 2010), an installation of Han Dynasty vases that Weiwei dipped in industrial latex paint. He repeats this process of singularly Chinese objects throughout the exhibition. Like Colored Vases and Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo, Weiwei blurs the line between art and vandalism in Table with Two Legs on the Wall (2008) and Table with Tree Legs (2009). Both pieces are made by altering Qing dynasty furniture.

Along those lines, he clusters together a collection of Qing Dynasty stools in his piece Grapes (2008). In Teahouse (2009), he compresses pu’er, a traditional Chinese processed black tea, into large Monopoly houses. He uses Tieli wood from razed Qing Dynasty temples to create Map of China (2008). Weiwei stands the logs on end so they form a five-foot tall map of China.

In China Log (2005), he cuts a map of China in the center of a log. Along with being formally beautiful, these two pieces comment on nationalism. Weiwei makes it difficult to read either work as a reference to China. Map of China (2008) towers above most of its audience. Chinese Log (2005) requires the viewer to place their eyes only a few inches off the floor and align up perfectly with the image to look through it. Yet, when reproduced in photos- the images appear immediate and obvious. Extending this dynamic from the form to content, Weiwei suggests that the idea of China, while real, is more difficult to perceive in person than in representation.

These works reflect Ai’s singular ability use the physical limitations and malleability of perception to generate content in his work. In some works, this manipulation is primarily formal. In the version of Moon Chest (2008) presented at the Brooklyn Museum, Weiwei places seven rectangular boxes of Huanghuali wood in a row. Each box has four circular holes cut in them—two about waist high and two at about eight feet. The holes do not align—so when the viewer looks down the row of boxes, the play of light and shadow creates forms that mimic the phases of the moon.

In other works—this understanding of perception deepens it content. His installation, S.A.C.R.E.D (2011-2013) epitomizes this dynamic. Six dioramas detailing Weiwei’s days in custody comprise the work. In each, Weiwei sculpts a scene out of fiberglass. The work creates an uncomfortable double voyeurism depicting the guards who deprive Weiwei of any intimacy. Sleeping, eating, showering or moving his bowels—he was watched.

The viewer can only see these images through an aperture in the front of the piece. His audience becomes part of the annihilation of his privacy. Conceptually, the work becomes like a fractal of paradoxes imploding inward. Weiwei makes the viewer culpable in the absence of his intimacy. But in a sense, he is giving away his intimacy—therefore subverting the idea of it being robbed from him. The viewer can be his conceptual liberator as they provide him this empowerment.

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Accusers (detail), 2011-2013. From the work S.A.C.R.E.D, 2011-2013. (1644-1911), One of six dioramas in fiberglass and iron, 148 3/8 x 78 x 60 1/5 in. (377 x 198 x 153 cm). Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studios. © Ai Weiwei

According to What? includes several works done in reaction to the Sichuan earthquake. On 12 May 2008, an 8.0 earthquake hit Sichuan killing more than 60,000 people and leaving for than 18,000 missing. Ten days later, Weiwei toured the site and was taken aback by the number of school children who were killed.

Believing that systemic corruption and lax construction standards directly lead to the deaths—Weiwei launched “Citizens’ Investigation” to compile the names of all of the students who died. The exhibition includes two works directly related to this project. In Sichuan Name List (2008-2011), he collected more than 5,000 names of the students confirmed dead, printed them and posted them along the wall of one of the gallery. In Remembrance (2009), he recorded people pronouncing each name on the list. These works articulate the limitations of just documentation. The deaths become lines of text and sounds—like a point in a Seurat painting—the details get blurred by the whole.

The exhibition includes two works where Weiwei taps his skills as an object maker to create beautiful images related to the earthquake. There’s an odd paradox even to the objects he chose to make these works. They are the only pieces in the exhibition that are made with fairly universal objects. He links together hundreds of backpacks to create Snake Ceiling. (2009). Straight (2008), is made up of piles of steel rebar. At first glance—neither is uniquely Chinese. Both objects exist in one form or the other throughout the developed world.

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Snake Ceiling, 2009. Backpacks, 15 3/4 x 354 15/16 in. ( 40 x 9000 cm). Collection of Larry Warsh, Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., Photos by C

Both the backpacks and the rebar refer to a specific detail from the earthquake. Weiwei got the idea to use backpacks after touring the earthquake site and seeing backpacks among the school debris. The rebar used for Strait was actually excavated from the rubble—so it is quite literally grounded in an exact time and from an exact place. Each piece of rebar was straightened after being extracted. These bars are then stacked into a landscape of a broad river cutting through hills.

The museum displays the work in the same room with the Sichuan Name List and Remembrance. They are versions of the same intellectual process of creating something to document the loss. All three pieces also have some painstaking element in their creation. Ultimately—the three works create a sense of futility. Truth and beauty have the same limitations. It doesn’t matter how sincere and significant the effort is—some things cannot be changed. Perhaps in this way Weiwei creates a true memorial. The work not only documents the people lost but the actual emotion of loss.

Concluding a US tour, the Brooklyn Museum manifestation of According to What? premiered two works. They illustrate the complexity of the dictate “truth is beauty”. One of the works where both Wei Wei’s understanding of beauty and obsession with minutia work brilliantly in concert is Stay Home, a 2013 video tracking the struggles of Liu Ximei. Liu was given to relatives when she was born in 1985 as she violated China’s strict single baby policy. At ten she was injured working in the fields. While being treated she contracted HIV. The title comes from the dictate given to her by the provincial government—she is ordered to “stay home”.

Weiwei records Liu’s struggle with both her condition and the government. Her right buttocks and leg severely atrophied, every step she takes looks excruciating. In several scenes the movie details the harsh side effects of the drugs she takes. Even when laughing and enjoying the precious pleasures she can, the fragility and certainty of her condition is unrelenting. Throughout the movie, the government monitors, follows and tries to manage her. There’s something absurd and surreal about a government as powerful as China feeling threatened by such a vulnerable person.

Weiwei creates a hauntingly paradox in his portrait of Liu. In many moments—her navigation of her circumstances is neither stoic nor heroic. She can seem vain, petulant, self-pitying and mired in doubt. In a heart-wrenching scene, while folding leaves Liu stumbles through a rationalization of what has happened to her. Through these moments, he casts Liu as an everywoman. Being accessible and relatable makes Liu more heroic. Liu, Weiwei and the audience understand—she will never conquer either Aids or the government—but she will resist and try. In Stay Home Weiwei tirelessly documents the ugly truth of what he deals with every day and creates a hauntingly beautiful mosaic.

Adjacent to the room the video was shown in was AI’s installation of feminist organizer and AIDS awareness campaigner Ye Haiyan’s belongings. The room is dedicated to her work and the cost she incurred. On 6 July 2012 in the city of Zhongshan, Ye and her family were kidnapped and dumped on the side of a road with all of their belongings. Weiwei offered financial assistance and had Ye’s belongings moved to his studio.

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Ye Haiyan’s Belongings at 6:35 a.m. on July 6th, 2013. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei. © Ai Weiwei

The installation painstakingly reproduces all of the objects that were left at the side of a road. The room is wallpapered with images of everything she owned down to photos of individual socks. The photo on which the installation is based is eerily beautiful. The morning sunlight creates a kind of muted tenebrism, and the picture is both balanced and composed like a pastoral landscape. The beauty of the overall image contradicts the emotion of the picture in which a family is completely abandoned without resource or hope.

This image reflects Wei Wei’s genius of taking the ugly truth and creating beauty out of it. He casts truth as equivalent to presenting datum. He takes on a prosecutorial role and tries to articulate as much data as possible. Through this process, he articulates a larger truth. Freedom is not victory over power—it is the resistance to power. Resisting power with sincerity and humanity, as Ye, Liu and Weiwei do, is beautiful. This is all he knows, and all he needs to know.

Above: Ai Weiwei, 2012 (partial). Photo by Gao Yuan. All images used by permission of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.