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Review: Ai Weiwei: According to What?

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Ai Weiwei's work featured at the IMA, including a collection of Han Dynasty vases dipped in paint and photos of the artist smashing a Han Dynasty relic.
  • Ai Weiwei's work featured at the IMA, including a collection of Han Dynasty vases dipped in paint and photos of the artist smashing a Han Dynasty relic.

Ai Weiwei, one of today's foremost artists on the world stage, has become a sort of spokesperson for what ails China. The retrospective Ai Weiwei: According to What, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through July 21, explores in detail the artist's trajectory over the past two decades, from early work influenced by readymade artists such as Duchamp and Warhol to recent large-scale works exploring his complicated relationship with his own country.

From the dismantling of Qing Dynasty temples, reconstructed into ethereal works of art using ancient joinery techniques, to iconic forms shaped into marble (such as a surveillance camera and construction hat), Ai has reclaimed and transformed the personal and the political. He's created this arresting body of work under the watchful eye of a totalitarian regime: Ai was detained for 81 days in 2011, which only added to his mystique and world-renown. Even as China continues to modernize, its silencing of speech continues, proving once again that economic prosperity and free speech do not go hand in hand.

And yet tossing out tradition, particularly when that tradition is not the foundational source of such oppression, is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This is what Ai so astutely observes, creating a dialogue between past and present in such works as Colored Vases (2007-10), a collection of Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) vases dipped in brightly colored industrial paint. Tradition meets progress - and the results are jarring when one considers the ancient pedigree of the vases. (If one didn't know their lineage, these could be the latest find at Pottery Barn.)

To further fuel these tensions, a series of three life-size photos depict the artist in the process of dropping a Han Dynasty relic, the final frame revealing the urn in smithereens. It is unclear whether or not Ai wants the viewer to applaud or abhor his actions - and this may be the point. Is tradition a form of stasis, or a springboard for change?

The central work in the retrospective, Straight, in which 38 tons of rebar from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake are arranged in undulating waves, reminds us how quickly we forget: nearly 5,000 children perished under the crush of shoddy construction from which the rebar was reclaimed.

Displayed alongside a wall listing the names of the fallen schoolchildren, also read aloud in a recording that sounds somberly throughout the gallery, Straight calls out not only the specific tragedy of complacency, but a more widespread tragedy, that throughout history societies - including our own - have devalued human life in the pursuit of power and wealth.

It is an enduring reality that such art created out of tragedy - Picasso's Guernica comes to mind as an antecedent of Straight - is often the only means of remembering beyond the ephemeral news cycle. But what can art do beyond calling attention to and commenting on the world's ills? Unlike history, which is written and rewritten according to the needs of the culture, art stands alone as a document to truth - and that, perhaps, is its greatest gift. As Ai has said, "... we can discover new possibilities from the process of dismantling, transforming, and recreating."

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