Interview: Curator Mami Kataoka Discusses Ai Weiwei's New Exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum

Interview: Curator Mami Kataoka Discusses Ai Weiwei's New Exhibition at the Hirshhorn MuseumPhoto by Jennifer Yin

 

My interest in using 'According to What' as the title of the exhibition was to ask how people could find their own roots — where you are coming from and where you are going.

 

Do you think it was difficult for him to leave in 1993? In the documentary released this year, AWeiwei: Never Sorryhe talks about feeling like he needed to go back, and he was also taking care of his father who was sick. Do you think he realized that his fate or purpose was to be in China?
I think there are many reasons. The most direct reason is his father’s illness at the time, but there was also the Tienanmen Square incident in 1989 that concerned him. Also, after spending almost 11 years in the U.S., he said he felt no context. He couldn’t really find his own roots in the culture or society of New York. In my opinion, I think he wanted to find and solidify where he was coming from.

Speaking of the documentary, what impact you do you feel it's had since its release in July, right before this exhibition and during the London Olympics? Do you think it's helped his cause, drawn even negative attention to him, or both?
It’s difficult to comment because I didn’t see the documentary in any of the Western countries. I saw it on my computer, because it hasn’t been released in Japan. Also, I have known him for at least five years, so I am more closely aware of everything that was shown in the documentary.

The documentary reviewed what happened to him, since he has been presented as a Chinese dissident artist. Perhaps previously, a lot of people didn’t know about his human rights activities and couldn’t really understand his personal character. I think the documentary reveals the reality. It's good that people have an opportunity to understand him better.

On the other hand, the exhibition is about showing the whole body of his artistic practice in the last fifteen to twenty years. He is a multi-talented person, like a classical Renaissance man, and he has been doing art, social activities, architecture projects, and so many other things. The documentary shows who Ai Weiwei is, but the exhibition shows he what he does. If the general audience comes to see the exhibition, they will see a very different side of him that also connects with what they saw in the documentary.

Along those lines, the name of the exhibition, According to What?, was inspired by the Jasper Johns painting of the same name. Was that a choice made by you or him?
We were talking about our experiences from the '80s in the States, as I was often visiting relatives at the same time he was living there. We probably met on the street or something. I really liked Jasper Johns at the time. Ai Weiwei was more influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.

When Weiwei was still in China, his father’s friend, who was a translator, brought him four books of Western art. One was about Impressionism, three were about Modern Art, and one was about Jasper Johns. He didn’t see Modern or Contemporary work as art at the time, so he threw the books away. He didn’t think that cars and beer cans were art. That was his first real encounter with Western contemporary art.

After he came to the States, he learned about Jasper Johns through the work of Duchamp and Warhol, and then he started seeing connections. The Johns piece According to What really references Marcel Duchamp’s portraiture. One of Weiwei’s earlier works, which he made in New York, is a portrait of Marcel Duchamp with sunflower seeds in it. The sunflower refers to Mao Zedong, from the cultural revolution, since the people saw Mao as the sun. Sunflowers always move in the direction of the sun, so people in the general public are supposed to be the sunflowers.

My interest in using "According to What" as the title of the exhibition was to ask how people could find their own roots — where you are coming from and where you are going. It’s a very fundamental and existential question. How can you contextualize yourself with Western art or envision your own cultural, political, and social context in the world?

We got the idea from those conversations, so I proposed the title, and he said it was fine. I don't know if he even likes that particular painting. It’s more about the idea and the attitude of questioning. His whole practice raises questions about the East and West, the authentic and the fake, copying and uniqueness, and the individual and the collective. All of these very simple yet complicated binaries are being presented by this body of work.

Tags: mami-kataoka, ai-weiwei, exhibition, hirshhorn-museum, interview
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