May 16, 2012
Between 1990 and 1995, floor space under construction surged by 750 percent in Beijing. This real estate boom, coupled with new housing deregulations, “radically changed the landscape of post-Tianenmen Beijing,” says Sackler Gallery curator Carol Huh. In the rush to modernize China, ancient structures were torn down and replaced with brand new houses and apartment buildings.
Chinese artist Ai WeiWei noticed the abundance of antique wood that flooded the market from this widespread demolition and began collecting pieces. Over the years, he incorporated this wood into various installations. The pieces that were left over he joined together in a structure called “Fragments,” on display in the lobby of the Sackler Gallery through April 7, 2013.
Using ironwood pillars and beams from dismantled Qing dynasty (1644-1912) temples, Ai worked with a team of carpenters to construct what he calls an “irrational structure.” At first glance, the large installation does indeed resemble a randomly assembled jungle gym. But in fact, the beams form a deliberate system that maps out the borders of China. The tallest pole, at 16 feet, marks the location of Beijing. Through the marriage of the discarded past (in the form of the Qing temple building blocks) and modern aesthetics, Ai explores the spatial and cultural transformations of modern Beijing, China, and the world.
The beams are held together by wooden pegs, not nails, that must be fit together perfectly. The team of carpenters employed old-fashioned techniques to balance the complex structure. Huh explained the difficult “choreography” of installing “Fragments” at the Sackler: “It’s not so much about strength in size or force, but really just perfect alignment in order to put the pieces together.”
The relationship between past and present, tradition and modernity, fascinates Ai, especially during a time when China is struggling to find a balance between its explosion of urban development and the preservation of the country’s rich history. Thus far, Huh points out, creating a new world has meant the destruction of the old one, resulting in what she calls “our fugitive relationship to the past.”
“It’s in the midst of this simultaneous erasure and capture of heritage that Ai turned more to objects and traces of the past,” she says.
Ai, who is currently under house arrest in Beijing, is well-known in China and abroad as an outspoken critic of the Chinese government who is not afraid to express his protests through art. “In normal circumstances I know it’s undesirable for an artist to be labeled a political activist or dissident. But I’ve overcome that barrier,” Ai says in a statement he wrote to the Hirshhorn Museum, which will exhibit a survey of his work in October. “The suits that people dress you in are not as important as the content you put forth, so long as it gives meaning to new expression. The struggle is worthwhile if it provides new ways to communicate with people and society.”
The Hirshhorn is also currently hosting Ai’s “Zodiac Heads” installation, which explores similar themes of heritage and history. But while “Zodiac Heads” and “Fragments” both draw on the past, they have everything to do with the present. To explain this relationship, Huh quotes the artist himself: “The faster we move, the more often we turn our heads back to look how fast.”
“Fragments” will be on display at the Sackler Gallery through April 7, 2013.
April 26, 2012
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops destroyed the Qing emperor’s summer palace, Yuanming Yuan, just outside of Beijing. They looted the palace riches to bring back to Europe, including the 12 bronze animal heads surrounding the palace’s famed zodiac fountain clock. Since 2000, Chinese groups have bought back most of the seven remaining statues. But in 2009, a Chinese collector who won two of the statues in an auction caused a scandal by refusing to pay, as he said he was “bidding on moral and patriotic grounds.” The two statues remain in France.
Yet the animal heads themselves, considered a Chinese national treasure, were designed in the 18th century by a European Jesuit priest, Giuseppe Castiglione, who had been hired by the Qing emperor as an artist of the court.
Contemporary Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei derived inspiration from the 19th-century scandal to create his first public artwork. Ai, who is best-known abroad for his high-profile 2011 arrest and detention, is getting a lot attention this year at the Smithsonian, beginning with this first of three exhibitions. The installation “Zodiac Heads,” at the Hirshhorn Museum, features enlarged models of these original bronze statues assembled in a circle. Through this recreation, Ai challenges the idea of “national treasure.”
“They were designed by an Italian, made by a Frenchman for a Qing dynasty emperor, which actually is somebody who invaded China,” Ai, who is currently not allowed to leave his native China, told filmmaker Alison Klayman in the documentary Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry. “So if we talk about national treasure, what nation are we talking about?”
The zodiac is an ancient Chinese time cycle, which divides 12 years into animal signs: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each sign is associated with certain characteristics that influence the people who were born under it. But the bronze animal heads reflect the Western interpretation of the Jesuit priests who created them. The animals are more naturalistic, which is common in the European tradition. “They are not exactly Chinese in appearance,” Ai said. “It is a Western understanding of a Chinese way.”
Because five of the twelve original heads have been lost, Ai had to reimagine them based on his impressions of the existing seven. His oversize interpretations of the originals add another layer onto the question of authenticity.
“My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” Ai said in the film.
But addressing these political and social issues has gotten him into serious trouble at home. In 2009, the Chinese government took down his blog, where Ai published a list of names of students who had died in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, the result of an investigation into the state’s silence on the deaths. In 2010 he was placed under house arrest. A few months before his detention in 2011, the local government demolished his Shanghai studio. Since his release after international outcry, Ai has been under constant surveillance. Just a few weeks ago, he turned the surveillance into an art project, setting up web cams so people could watch him 24 hours a day on the Internet. Though the project was quickly squashed by the government, the website attracted worldwide attention. His activism on Twitter has also been a point of conflict.
Ai’s “Zodiac Heads” have already passed through São Paulo, New York, London, Los Angeles, Taipei and Houston. The Hirshhorn’s exhibition of “Zodiac Heads” has a unique element; arranged in a circle around the museum’s plaza fountain, each animal head is aligned along the compass coordinates. The rat, which is the first sign, is on the north coordinate, while the horse is on the south coordinate. “That’s how the zodiac was originally conceived,” says Hirshhorn curator Mika Yoshitake.
In May, another of his installations, “Fragments,” will go on display at the Sackler Gallery. “Fragments,” constructed from ironwood beams salvaged from Qing dynasty temples, also addresses this question of authenticity. Both the exhibitions of “Zodiac Heads” and “Fragments” are harbingers for the major survey of Ai’s work, “Ai WeiWei: According to What?” which arrives at the Hirshhorn in October.
The Hirshhorn’s zodiac fountain is already attracting interest from curious passersby. “The fact that all the animals are all facing outward really draws people in,” Yoshitake says. “For viewers, it’s really a change.”
Of course, Ai’s fame as a political dissident will also draw people to the fountain. “”Most Americans recognize his name because of his political activism. But what I want people to get out of this is that he is an artist first and foremost,” stresses Yoshitake. “Politics and activism—that’s part of his practice, but it’s not the sole thing. So I hope it gives Americans a new perspective on Ai WeiWei as an artist.”
February 1, 2012
We know you’ve got enough “looking forward to 2012″ lists under your belt by now; our Who to Follow post alone will keep you pretty busy. But we can’t resist sneaking in just one more. Here’s our guide to the exhibitions we’re most excited for this year. Mark your calendars now so you’ll have no excuse to say you’re bored later.
A new look at Monticello: Founding father Thomas Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime”. . . but owned more than 600 slaves who sustained his plantation, Monticello. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opened on January 27 in the American History Museum‘s National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery, and focuses on the long-overlooked history of slave life at the third president’s Virginia home. Be sure to keep up with the latest news from Monticello on Twitter at @TJMonticello.
Happy birthday, Jackson Pollock: If he were alive today, Jackson Pollock would have turned 100 on January 28. To honor the stormy life and revolutionary work of the modern art icon, the Archives of American Art presents Pollock’s personal family photos, letters, and writings in “Art Memories Arrested in Space, a centennial tribute to Jackson Pollock” at the Reynolds Center through May 15.
Game on: Can video games be art? To answer that question, the American Art Museum‘s upcoming exhibit, “The Art of Video Games,” pulls together the most arresting graphics and innovative designs in the gaming world, on view March 16 through September 30. Even if you forgot to vote for your favorite game, don’t miss out on GameFest, which kicks off the exhibit with three days packed with open play, panel talks with artists and designers, and live-action gaming. To tide you over til March, follow curator Chris Melissinos at @CMelissinos for updates and teasers.
Hokusai: In anticipation of the Cherry Blossom Centennial, the Sackler Gallery presents a study of Katsushika Hosukai, Japan’s most famous artist (yes, that’s his Great Wave that has probably graced every college dorm wall in America). “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” his most acclaimed woodblock print series, was first published in 1830 when Hokusai was in his 70s and goes on view on March 24 through June 17. The gallery has set up an interactive website with more information on Hokusai’s life and artistic technique.
Ai Weiwei: The controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, arrested last year, brings a new installation, “Fragments,” to the Sackler Gallery beginning May 12. Using antique wood salvaged from Qing Dynasty temples, Ai worked with skilled traditional carpenters to create what he calls an “irrational structure” that both affirms and defies centuries of architectural traditions. In October, the Hirshhorn gets in on the action with an exhibit of 25 of Ai’s recent works entitled “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” For an English translation of Ai’s Twitter, follow @aiwwenglish.