Yesterday marked the opening of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. It's an updated version of the 2009 exhibit of the same name, which appeared at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and it's the first North American survey of the controversial Chinese artist's work.
In the three years leading up to now, Ai Weiwei's life drastically changed, and the public was made highly aware of it. He became more closely watched and subsequently censored by the government — he was beaten by police in a hotel room and had to get surgery, he was arrested and confined for 81 days, and the revealing documentary about his life, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, was released.
In our interview with the exhibition's curator Mami Kataoka, we discuss Ai Weiwei: According to What? in relation to the new show and Ai Weiwei's history with Western art and artists.
His whole practice raises questions about the East and West, the authentic and the fake, copying and uniqueness, and the individual and the collective.
What influenced the decision to show an updated version of Ai Weiwei: According to What? in Washington, D.C.? Was the original plan to travel to the Hirshhorn after the Mori Art Museum?
Even while planning the show, we were talking about another exhibition. We didn't start to plan it until the show in 2009 ended. We kept the conversation open. The exhibition title and starting point remained the same, but since so many dramatic changes happened in Ai Weiwei’s life since then, we wanted to reflect that in a new version of the exhibition.
What was the major catalyst for those changes that took place between 2009 and 2012?
His problematic relationship with the Chinese government became more public. He started a citizen’s investigation after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The works relating to that project constitute most of the additions to the show.
Whose decision was it to include works like the 2009 photograph, Ai Weiwei in the elevator when taken into custody by the police, and the 2009 x-ray image, Brain Inflation, showing the aftermath of being beaten by the Chinese police?
He said he wanted to include them.
The exhibit is coming from Japan to the United States. Could you talk about Ai's personal and professional relationship with the U.S., in the context of living in New York City in the '80s, why he moved there, and why he left? The exhibition includes the 1983–93 New York Photographs, which appear to give greater insight into his experience of finding himself as an artist during that time.
Yes, the group of photographs reflects his time in New York, where he lived from 1981 until 1993. During that time, he went to school at Parsons, but he didn’t finish. He said that there were so many mornings when he woke up and had nothing to do. He was also supporting his life through working many different jobs, like at a shoe shop, as a framer, or just doing drawings on the street.
Certainly he encountered ideas of Western art through Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, and Jasper Johns. When he went back to China, he published the book series Gray Cover, Black Cover, White Cover. Those books really explain his idea of Western modern and contemporary art, which wasn’t really known in the Chinese art community at the time. His earlier pieces have a strong relationship with Marcel Duchamp’s readymade works. One of the pieces in the exhibition, Château Lafite (1988), has Chinese shoes and a wine bottle, which is an exemplary work from his time in New York.
His time in New York gave him a very deep understanding of Western Art, but also gave him a way to consider his position. When he went back to China, he started to revisit his own culture, history, and society.