Ai Weiwei’s North American touring exhibition According to What has just finished its run at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the second stop on a tour which began in Washington D.C. in October of last year. The tour will continue at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada and then the Miami Art Museum, concluding at the Brooklyn Museum.
Indianapolis is as far west as the exhibit will travel, and gave a rare opportunity for a midwesterner such as myself to see the best- known contemporary artist in China who is also one of the most celebrated and controversial contemporary artists of his generation.
The opportunity was not be missed by my fellow Hoosiers and other midwestern art lovers, as the exhibition drew droves to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a venue which has proved a haven for contemporary art. The IMA’s permanent contemporary art collection includes 100 acres of interactive sculptures which are on free display within the Virginia Fairbanks art and nature park, as well as large-scale murals and sculptures inside the museum walls.
Before entering the exhibit guests are greeted with a piece in the lobby showcasing the artist’s affinity for engineering and architecture. A freestanding sculpture composed only of Chinese-manufactured bicycles towering almost two stories is gingerly perched on overturned bikes. whose seats support the entire sculpture. A similar feat is achieved even more dramatically within the exhibit, with a sculpture composed of a conglomeration of stools. The artist’s affinity for this kind of structure is not surprising considering the work for which he is most famed: the iconic Birds’ Nest Stadium in Beijing. Photos showcasing the design and construction of the stadium are wallpapered onto the exhibit’s entryway.
This also serves as a metaphorical entryway to the artist’s body of work, as most western art observers will have first become aware of Ai Weiwei during the Olympic celebrations. That very public showcase of the artist as representative of national pride and China’s perceived new openness stands in stark contrast to the dissonant relationship between China’s most famous artist and its Central Government today.
The works on display in Indianapolis which most epitomize that controversial status within China were three multimedia pieces with the Sichuan earthquake as their theme. On the back wall of the exhibit, in the context of Ai’s sculptures of closed circuit cameras and what at first glance appears to be nothing more than scrap metal looking on, we see over 5,000 names displayed and hear Ai’s voice reading each one solemnly.
The scrap metal In front of the wall is a piece created from rusted and bent rebar that Ai Weiwei had recovered from the wreckage of schools in the Sichuan region destroyed by the quake and straightened into a nearly flat sculpture shaped to resemble a fault line or the line on a seismograph which would register an earthquake. It also exposes the rusted foundations and shoddy construction which families have argued was responsible for such dramatic loss of young lives.
Providing context for both pieces is an hourlong film the artist created documenting his research into the earthquake, entitled So Sorry. It ends with school staff apologizing to the families of the victims who died within their walls.
Earlier in the documentary we see the seeds of the artist’s home detention being sown while friends of the artist keep cellphone cameras trained on plainclothes investigators from the Chinese government who were attempting to make note of all visitors and family living in close proximity to the artist as he investigated the official death toll numbers from the disaster. Ai calls the local police to report a stalker and confronts the federal policeman at the station until the identity of his would-be tail is revealed.
Indeed these are some of the works that landed the artist in 11 months of home detention and resulted in the revocation of his passport. Officials claim the arrest was for “financial crimes,” which had the rather dispiriting effect of preventing the artist from attending his premieres in Indianapolis and in Washington D.C. and will likely remain a constant throughout the tour.