Let's take a step back from the recent unrest at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and focus on one thing: The first full-scale American retrospective of the work of Chinese artist, activist, designer and architect Ai Weiwei - probably "the world's most famous living artist," according to The New York Times - is opening at the IMA this week. Not in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis or St. Louis. This is the furthest point west the show will travel before heading to Toronto, Miami and New York. And that's quite a coup for this city.
Ai won't be at the show, of course. He came into direct confrontation with the Chinese government in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake when it declined to release the names of thousands of schoolchildren who died when their poorly-built schools collapsed. He was beaten by the Chinese police while attending the trial of a fellow activist in 2009 (the ensuing cerebral hemorrhage required emergency surgery), then imprisoned for 81 days in 2011 on charges of tax evasion and distributing pornography. He remains without a passport and under government surveillance.
But in part because Ai, 55, has meticulously documented his adult life, his presence is strong with this exhibition, titled by Ai According to What? after a painting by American post-modernist Jasper Johns. In one room, he intones the names of student earthquake victims whose names Ai and fellow activists set about collecting in defiance of the Chinese government. The IMA's Davis Lab houses an installation consisting of thousands of photos distributed via his Twitter page. The walls are lined with photographs taken in New York City, where he lived from 1981 to 1993, and Beijing, to which he returned in 1993 shortly before his father's death (one photo shows his father on a gurney in the morgue).
Audiences unconcerned with contemporary visual arts or global politics may know Ai best through his "bird's nest" design for the 2008 Olympic Stadium in Beijing (created in collaboration with a Swiss architecture firm), but he's also worked in design, publishing (including online publishing through a prominent blog now banned by the Chinese government) and exhibition planning.
His work gestures toward points along the art history timeline both ancient and near-contemporary. His respect for traditional Chinese craftsmanship is evident in his Furniture series, which makes use of antique hardwood furniture made during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), disassembled and then reassembled using traditional joinery techniques that make no recourse to hammer or nail. And his disrespect, in a sense, for Chinese political and cultural authority is demonstrated through Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a performance piece which does indeed involve the destruction of an antique urn from the Han era (206 BCE-220 CE), and Colored Vases, which Ai created by dipping Han dynasty vases in industrial paints as if those paints were traditional glazes.
At the same time Ai shows himself explicitly in debt to a range of 20th-century artists. To quote from the opening essay to the According to What? catalogue (available in both hardcover and very affordable magazine-style forms at the show), "many of Ai Weiwei's works are created using a very simple form and systematic method reminiscent of the conceptual and Minimal work by such artists as Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd." In one photo from his New York City period, Ai poses in front of Andy Warhol's 1966 Self-Portrait, mimicking Warhol's pose; in another, he peeks through Marcel Duchamp's cracked-glass To Be Looked At (from the Other Side of the Glass).
"Ai straddles the worlds of Chinese art and European and American contemporary art and brings those aesthetics together in a really interesting way," says IMA Curator of Contemporary Art Sarah Green, who led the charge in bringing According to What? to Indianapolis. "The thread that runs throughout the show is his asking questions about the amazing transformation in China that's happened over the past several decades. I think the most provocative image in the show is Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. For me it poses the right questions about what from history do we keep, what do we discard, at what cost does reform and modernization come and how do we acknowledge the past while moving forward."
Ai's works dealing with the Sichuan earthquake are provocative in other senses. One room of According to What? is devoted of Sichuan-inspired works including Straight, which consists of 38 tons of rebar that was salvaged from school buildings that collapsed during the earthquake and then straightened and shaped into an undulating, wave-like pattern, and Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen's Investigation, a spreadsheet of names and ages covering an entire wall of the IMA gallery, along with a looped recording of Ai reading those names.
"From an American audience it might be difficult to conceive of how wanting to make a list of those who died would be controversial, but it's all in context of the fact that many schoolhouses crumbled while other buildings did not, and it's likely that shoddy government construction led to many more deaths than were necessary," Green says. "And the government wasn't interested in a) accounting for those lives that were lost or b) inquiring into why so many school buildings collapsed. The mere act of gathering these names was very political, and very soon after he published the list was when the government shut his blog down in 2009."
It took two flatbed trucks to haul in the rebar that makes up Straight, which was arranged according to instructions from Ai, who monitored the setup of the show via two of his assistants who were on the ground in Indianapolis. "It became almost grisly in the room," Green says of the setup process. "When you think about everything that happened to the rebar - it was built, destroyed, salvaged, straightened, brought here - it's heavy in lots of ways."
Green says she's always thought of Ai more as an artist than an activist and became interested in his work before he hit the headlines. She visited his Beijing studio once, in 2003: Ai and his assistants were working on his piece China Log (included in the IMA show), and she can report that Ai is quite fond of babies. She had "always been looking for a way to work with him," and she says she asked at the right time in late 2010 when the Smithsonian's Hirschhorn Museum was working with Tokyo's Mori Art Museum to bring Ai's show, which premiered in Tokyo, to North America. Almost all pieces that were part of the show's North American premiere at the Hirschhorn will make the trip to the IMA, save for an installation comprised of schoolchildren's backpacks (meant to, in part, represent the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake) that would've been very difficult to mount at the IMA.
Green hasn't been back to Beijing since that 2003 studio visit, but she's been in touch with Ai during the process of setting up the show. She interviewed him for an iPad application, the AiPad, which will be available to exhibition visitors. (The AiPad will address a concern voiced by visitors to the Hirschhorn stop of the exhibition: namely, that the show focused too much on Ai's art, without giving enough political or biographical context.) On a Friday a few weeks before the show's opening, she was putting together a care package for him consisting of a catalogue from Andy Warhol Enterprises, a show looking at Warhol as both artist and businessperson that Green curated for the IMA, and a slightly damaged LOVE sculpture from the gift shop. Green has chosen the slightly damaged one not because of budget cuts, but because of Ai's interest in the relationship between fake and authentic, original and reproduction.
The show is the IMA's biggest ever in terms of footprint, largely because it will spread outside of the IMA's rotating exhibition space on the first floor and into museum's open public spaces, which will house sculptures like Forever, a circular assemblage comprised of China's popular Forever bicycles that addresses, in part, the widespread shift from bicycle to car use in China's urban centers. And Green emphasizes that the show is also big in another sense: in its potential for cross-cultural exchange and consciousness-raising. "One of the great things about having his work shown here, in Indy and in the U.S., is making this vast nation appear as a place full of unique individuals and to pose these contemporary issues in a personal, intimate way - and not just symbolically either," she says. "You have this destroyed temple wood in the gallery; you have the salvaged rebar there. It's not just a picture: You are seeing the actual objects."
April 4, 6:30 p.m.: Opening reception featuring Chinese art experts Barbara Pollack and Lee Amborozy ($35 public, $25 members)
April 26, 7 p.m.: Screening of Ghosts with Shit Jobs, a Canadian mockumentary about a future world where Western laborers are the ones working shit jobs
May 16-18: Screenings of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a 2012 documentary about the artist
June 5, 6 p.m.: ACLU of Indiana First Wednesday discussion of freedom of expression and art as dissent
June 27, 7 p.m.: Screening of Ai Weiwei's Fairytale, a 2007 documentary directed by Ai chronicling his project for a European art event, Documenta 12, for which he invited 1,001 Chinese citizens to talk about their lives and dreams for the future