Road trip to Indianapolis. First, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and, to start, the Ai Weiwei show: According to What? This photo is of the kids looking at “a new sculpture made from steel rebar that was salvaged from schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.” He and collaborators/assistants painstakingly bent all the rebar back so that it was perfectly straight and arranged it in a kind of rising and falling wave pattern. Behind, you can see a list on the wall of the names of the many hundreds of victims of the earthquake, names you can also hear recited out loud from a speaker in the corner.
I liked the show — I think we all did — although I find Ai Weiwei’s work comes across pretty effectively on video and in description, i.e. it’s not totally transformative to see it in person. I guess this is to say that he’s basically a conceptual/ relational artist whose work is as much about the social dynamics and processes that lie behind it as about its physical instantiation. So, seeing the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, for example, I’m not sure you get so much less of an authentic experience of his work than you do from going to the show. With the steel rebar piece above, part of the point is that it looks like a minimalist abstract work, but is in fact much more a polemical, political statement that exists in relation to, and as a sort of record of, all of Ai Weiwei’s other activities related to his protest of the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake.
Sarah made the point that in some ways his approach to art resembles Jeff Koons’; like Koons, he has (or had) a big studio and a lot of assistants whom he oversees as they produce large, sculptural works based on the ideas he comes up with. There’s definitely not a whole lot of emphasis on individual craft skill or anything like that. (Of course, his ideas are much more interesting and affecting than Koons’, which seem to mostly just be about the ubiquity of commercial culture.)
Actually one part of the show I liked a lot were the walls of his photos taken during his years in the mid-late 1980s through 1992 or so he spent living in NYC on the Lower East Side. It’s fun and fascinating to see these glimpses into his life as an expat unknown Chinese would-be artist, chronicling the Tompkins Square riots and the like. There are big group dinners in what look like cheap Chinatown restaurants, scenes in peoples’ tiny bedrooms, hanging out with Allen Ginsburg. Makes you wonder to what degree his later political activism was some kind of syncretic blend of Chinese/ U.S. practices coming out of those Lower East Side years.
Anyway, all that said, I think he’s a fascinating & important figure, and needless to say a powerful voice of dissent, but I don’t personally love the artworks as art. For sheer sensuous/aesthetic pleasure, they were kind of blown away for me by the stuff on display in the Majestic African Textiles exhibit next door. When I saw these (below) across the room I actually said to Sarah, “oh, look, they have some Nick Cave soundsuits!” [see my post about those, with some images, here]- but these were in fact Nigerian mid-20th century masquerade/dance costumes of the sort that must have inspired Cave’s soundsuits.
These are so spectacular!
And then these gorgeous, sometimes scary masks & figurines:
Call me a traditionalist formalist, but at the end of the day I’ll probably always take the art that, when you’re in the room with it, overwhelms you with sensuous/ tactile/ visual qualities that you can’t experience the same way in reproduction.
So, go see the Ai Weiwei show, but be sure also to visit the Majestic African Textiles show.
Filed under: art