Ai Weiwei (pronounced eye way-way) has become one of the most influential contemporary artists on the international circuit – in both politics and art. Born in China, Weiwei spent some of his early years in New York in the 1980s where he apparently developed is acumen for merging art with social consciousness. He’ll use any medium or genre – sculpture, photography, performance, architecture, and now tweets and blogs – to deliver his messages. Weiwei has become something of a living martyr in China’s ongoing battles with democracy; he has openly criticized the Chinese government and been harassed and jailed. His antics rival those of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol: he once dropped an ancient Chinese vase and took a photograph of himself giving the White House the finger.
Weiwei has already been the subject of two shows in Washington, D.C. This past spring, “Perspectives: Ai Weiwei,” opened at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with an installation of “Fragments.” Working with a team of skilled carpenters, Ai turned ironwood salvaged from dismantled Qing-era temples into a handsomely constructed structure that appears chaotic on the ground but, if seen from above, coalesces into a map of China. “Fragments” embodies a dilemma Weiwei often proposes: can the timber of the past, foolishly discarded by the present, be re-crafted into a different, better China; a China we cannot yet discern?) Since October 7, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has been presenting a wide-ranging survey of Weiwei’s work, in a display scheduled to run through February 2013. The exhibition title, “According to What?,” was borrowed from a Jasper Johns painting.
Authorities keep hounding him – now for alleged tax evasion. Practically imprisoned in his non-descript home, he keeps a camera and an iPhone ready at all times. He seems to recognize his significance in both the art and political communities. In centuries past, Weiwei says, Chinese society had something of a “total condition, with philosophy, aesthetics, moral understanding and craftsmanship.” Art was a powerful force, integral to China’s culture. “It’s not just a decoration or one idea,” he notes, “but rather a total high model which art can carry out.”