Ai Weiwei and trust in the system 〈The background- foreground playground〉

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Wed, January 23, 2013 - 2:34:25

Ai Weiwei has his first U.S. show at the Hirshhorn Gallery in D.C. It is a big retrospective, with many rooms, many galleries, many pieces, many different media, and many techniques. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese dissident artist who earlier in his life lived in Germany and in New York for long blocks of time. Some of the commentary is easy to understand. For example, one work consists of rebar collected from schools that collapsed in the big Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Sections of rebar are laid down side by side so that the piece stretches out like a 50-foot long, 18-foot wide rug along the middle of the huge gallery. But the rebar is carefully cut and piled as if to illustrate the low hills and the fissure between the hills that constitute the rupturing of the earth.

In some ways, the representation is just about as plain and simple as you could wish. It's just rebar—dark, metallic, ugly. It does not even have the no-nonsense informational charm of a 3-D topographic map (which it resembles). There's no eye candy here. When you enter the gallery, before you can distinguish the individual poles, the piece draws the eye only by being large and dark and holding pride of place. But, as you come to understand the significance, every pole, most intended to be upright yet now laid low, becomes a reminder of each child, each classroom, each building flattened. Ashes, ashes, all fall down. It is a lament.

And, of course, what does the piece show overtly? The earthquake. At an innocent level, the piece might seem to pose the question of what can we people do about the profound forces of the earth? Obviously nothing. We are just people, little, weak, and mild. And yet, what is lying there on the ground? The steel that we made, our own creation. Latent in the steel are promises we made to keep our children safe. And, so laying there, tacit but plain, is the great accusation: We know those schools should have been built better. Why weren't they? Is the great black rug the power of the earth or is it the power of large systems of people? Is the true rupture that of the earth or that of the systematic undermining of human trust by other people? Prior to the earthquake, the schools appeared like ordinary schools, a central embodiment of civilization. But they were structurally rotten. This ambiguity, the creation of a space in which multiple incommensurate views are all true, is what makes it a great work of art.

More on Ai Weiwei in my next post.

Posted in: on Wed, January 23, 2013 - 2:34:25

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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@Bridget (2013 01 24)

Okay, I’m not the next plane to DC.  I absolutely want to see this piece now.  What a wonderful review.

@hakuin rose (2013 01 25)

This review does what a good review should do: it creates an almost physical need to see the “great black rug” and to join in a passionate response.  Thank you for an elegant experience of language as well.

@Deborah Tatar (2013 01 27)

Thanks….  Some people have sent me thoughtful responses via email.  One concern pushed through the work of art to the question of justice in China, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Evidently Erik Jansen, at Stanford, has recently been funded to build a law school in Afghanistan, on the logic that in places without a rule of law, the rule of law comes first and that law schools are places where people learn them.  Of course, China, as my correspondent pointed out, China has had a government for a long time and we cannot have the illusion of “fixing” them.  I am not comfortable with the thought of fixing other countries.  I just keep thinking of the beam in my own eye.