Ai Weiwei says that contemporary art is the philosophy of society.
Is there any one piece you can highlight that embodies the newest version of the exhibition?
The works are all interrelated, so it’s hard for me to pick one. The steel rebar installation titled Straight (2008–12) is a major installation as an additional work, and it is directly related to the Sichuan earthquake. Weiwei is concerned both with the people who lost their lives and, more broadly, the fundamental value of people’s lives. It can be applied to all the suffering happening on the planet at every moment. Ai Weiwei and I feel that it’s not really an exhibition about him against the Chinese government; it’s more about the opportunity for all of us to revisit and re-question where we came from, where we are all going, and how we can help people suffering in all parts of the world.
Ai Weiwei definitely defies the binaries assigned to him, whether it's him versus the government or Eastern versus Western art. What are your opinions on Ai Weiwei's use of the Internet to propel his work and message? He’s quoted as saying, “Blogs and the Internet are great inventions for our time, because they give regular people an opportunity to change public opinion.” The newer works in the exhibition all appear to resonate with his activity blogging and on Twitter.
There is a sound piece in the exhibit from 2010 called Remembrance. It's a voice recording that lists the names of students who died in the Sichuan earthquake. That was the project he did two years after the earthquake happened, and he used Twitter to find people who would pronounce the names of the individual children who lost their lives. At the exhibition, you hear the sound piece while looking at a wall listing their names.
He collected all of these voices through the Internet, which made the project possible. You cannot really ask 5,000 people to come to your studio. China is particularly vast, so it’s hard to reach out to the general public. In a sort of non-hierarchical way, I think the Internet and social media have allowed everybody to conversate. I think that sort of reachability is something Ai Weiwei is very much interested in.
The catalogue mentions that there is a desire to engage audiences who aren't familiar with both Ai Weiwei and contemporary art as a whole. What do you want this audience to take away from the exhibition, especially during an election year in the U.S. and in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall?
Ai Weiwei says that contemporary art is the philosophy of society. Contemporary art is a means to understand people from other parts of the world and reflect the status of society today. Weiwei is very happy to have this show in Washington D.C. and looks forward to hearing what people think.
I think the works are very strong and speak for themselves. We have some accompanying quotations from him, as it helps to have the thoughts behind the works. We tried to, in many ways, make the exhibition reachable. The guards at the museum, who have watched as we assemble the exhibition, have been looking at the works and think the show is very strong. I’ve been talking with them, and they all say that the show is really great, and that Weiwei must be really smart and interesting. I’m very excited that the show will travel throughout the U.S. in the coming years.
Where will the exhibition travel after the Hirshhorn?
It will go to the Indianapolis Art Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Miami Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum in 2014. Weiwei will change part of the upcoming shows or add new works, since we can expect that much more will happen in the next two years.
Photos by Cathy Carver.