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.
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, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, he 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.
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.