Ulla Rønberg: Ai Weiwei Out of Context

Originally published in Point of View International 09/29/2017
Translation by Morten Tastum

Visit it while it’s hot! – The Hirshhorn Ai Weiwei exhibition end on January 1st!

Ai Weiwei has become the Western art world’s darling as the provocative China focused artist. Everything he creates draws intense interest from the public and is put into a politically correct agenda. However, the current exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum; Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn, is taken outside of context and actively uplifts Weiwei into a moral and ethical soothsayer. Because of this, much of the power derived from his art is lost.

Portrait of Ai Weiwei. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Portraits of dissidents and the politically persecuted made in LEGO lie side by side on the floor, resembling a large carpet. A list of men and women whom have fought for causes and been brought to attention of those in power. Persecuted, expelled, or detained for something each of them believed in.

The premise for Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is so sharply cut and direct, that you cannot help to be provoked. Who doesn’t share sympathy with those unjustly persecuted? Such a singular story becomes trite at best, and at worst, doctrinaire. To press the message so obviously that there is no space for one’s own opinion in many ways resemble the dogmatic way of thought that the persecuted were breaking with.

What if the museum visitors don’t agree that Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning have deserved a spot on the LEGO-carpet? But there is no space for questions, and should you have some it is likely because your political compass is skewed. In this exhibition, there is no doubt.

@Large Offers Perspective

The artworks were originally created for the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz (September 2014 – April 2015). The LEGO portraits were only a part of a larger, total installation which utilized cells, halls and hospital rooms in the old Alcatraz prison.

The promoter of the exhibition was the FOR-SITE Foundation, which is based in the idea that art can communicate on places (natural and cultural landmarks), to create a new understanding and new opinions – not only about the place that you visit. The goal of FOR-SITE is to create the opportunity for fresh thinking, new perspectives, which at best can expand the context for where we stand today when we look back at where we come from.

Ai Weiwei, Installation view of Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Photo: Cathy Carver.

The Alcatraz-island with the infamous prison is today part of the US national park system and every year attracts more than 1.4 million visitors. The federal prison, though only in use for 29 years (1934-1963), has achieved iconic status through books and movies. But the story of the island is much more than just the prison. Indians used the island as a place of isolation for those who had violated the laws of the tribe. Later it became a place of hiding for the Indians from the Spanish missionaries.

When California in 1840 became part of US dominion, a large military fort and prison was erected on the island. The placement of the fort on the island worked as a defense for the city of San Francisco and the surrounding coastal areas and was viewed as one of the strongest, most strategic bastions in the US. During the Civil War (1861 – 1865) the prison was converted to house not only military prisoners but traitors as well – put there without a trial. In this way, politicians and citizens whom acted suspiciously or showed a lack of loyalty to the Union could disappear for years and become forgotten at Alcatraz. After the Civil War the fort lost its military importance but remained in used as a military prison until 1934, where it was converted to a federal prison for some of the worst criminals in the US.

The history of the island is of course important because it resonates with the original idea behind the @Large exhibition. Ai Weiwei created seven completely new art installations for @Large, whereof the LEGO portraits only make up one part. Every installation is unique and created especially for the various rooms in the prison. The LEGO portraits, for instance, were located on the floor of the old laundry hall. It was here that the inmates washed uniforms from military bases around the San Francisco Bay area, under supervision of armed guards from a walkway.

The LEGO portraits could during the exhibition be seen from this walkway as an infinite pattern of faces lying like colored lakes of laundry water on the floor of the hall. Another important point with the creation of these LEGO portraits is that Ai Weiwei for the first time expanded his focus to the politically persecuted from other nations. From this there has been a displacement from the politically oppressed from China which Ai Weiwei most often is connected and related to, to human rights in a global perspective.

Taken Out of Context

Back to the Hirshhorn. The preliminary observations concerning the provocation of being presented for a ready-made political message needs, of course, to be viewed in the light of the museological setting it is presented in. The white walls of the Hirshhorn, contemporary art’s cool cube, have replaced the historical conceptual framework that Alcatraz delivered. Consequently the artwork is taken out of the context which is essential to accept the premise on which the political message is built upon and as an artwork. There is no invitation for questions, there are only answers given. In this way it becomes not substantial, but insignificant.

Without Alcatraz as a context you are as a museum visitor instead confounded about the museum making itself into a mouthpiece for such a one-sided and strong message. At the same time it is hard to find the work artistically interesting.  The elongated row of color-happy LEGO blocks laid down in the long, white room becomes sedative and you find yourself at the last portrait, number 176, strangely untouched about the fates connected to the faces. The main issue for Hirshhorn, is however that they uplift Ai Weiwei into a moral and ethical soothsayer and from this much of the power derived from his art is lost.

The museum program is “All About Ai Weiwei”; his own experiences as a politically persecuted person, his own sufferings as a prisoner, his own opinions concerning oppressive regimes. Very appropriately the first that meets the visitors is a giant photostat depicting Ai Weiwei staring at you with dramatically open eyes. Too much.

In the exhibition catalogue @Large, Cheryl Haines, the founder of FOR-SITE and initiator of the Alcatraz exhibition, writes that the purpose of the exhibition was to raise questions such as: “What constitutes freedom? What role does communication play in the creation of an equal society? How do we ensure that everybody is heard? What responsibility do we have as individuals to ensure freedom for all globally?”

Questions, which all require fresh thinking if we are to be able to discuss them with anything other than a declaration of intent. @Large create the frames for the dialogue with a path back to the prison and legal history along with a look at our contemporary systematic oppression of free thought. It’s well thought out.

Facts: Ai Weiwei (b. 1957).  Chinese artist and activist. Ai Weiwei lived in New York from 1981-1993. Today he lives in Beijing. Ai Weiwei has openly criticized the Chinese government and has as a result spent time both in prison and in house arrest.

The @Large exhibition on Alcatraz Island in 2014 was the first time Ai Weiwei used a large amount (1.2M) LEGO bricks in an installation. When he in 2015 wanted to use LEGO again in an installation in Melbourne, Australia, he was denied the purchase of these bricks by LEGO. LEGO pointed to their policy of not wanting to support political messaging. In the wake of this a “LEGO-Gate” case evolved with international awareness, which ended with LEGO in the end recognized that it was a mistake to not sell the bricks to Ai Weiwei. As a result, LEGO afterwards changed their policy to refraining from asking about intent of use in the purchase of large amount of bricks. Instead they are sold under the condition that LEGO in no way supports the project.

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