Ai Weiwei's show at the Brooklyn Museum, "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" is opening tomorrow, and it comes at a particularly tense time for the Chinese artist. In a video message played during the press preview, Ai regretted that he was not able to attend the opening because the Chinese government has confiscated his passport for reasons still unknown. This frustrated struggle with injustice pervades throughout the exhibit, making Ai's works all the more relevant.
The Brooklyn Museum's Ai survey is the final leg of "According to What?," which has travelled to the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., Canada's Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. "This is the last stop, and the stop I emotionally care the most," Ai said in his video message.
Image via Brooklyn Museum / Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Accusers (detail), 2011-2013. From the work S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011‒13. One of six dioramas in fiberglass and iron, 148 3/8 x 78 x 60 1/5 in. (377 x 198 x 153 cm). Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei
But unlike its previous renditions, Ai has created works specifically for his Brooklyn show. One of these new pieces is an installation of six dioramas made from iron boxes in the entrance of the museum. Titled S.A.C.R.E.D., the boxes are mini-prisons that show scenes from Ai's 81-day detainment in a Chinese jail, where he served time for tax evasion charges in 2011. The dioramas depict Ai eating, bathing, and sleeping with guards hovering over him.
Ai has often been criticized for being a better activist than an artist, and some of his works are admittedly unchallenging (a Qing dynasty vase painted as a Coca-Cola bottle, a security camera chiseled from marble). The dioramas, however, are less straightforward. Because you have to peer into the boxes through small windows, you become complicit in the depicted surveillance. Placed right in the front of the museum, they act as obstacles that box you in. You are both guard and prisoner.
Besides his dioramas, Ai has included two additional installations in the Brooklyn edition of "According to What?" Ye Haiyan's Belongings centers around a feminist activist who was kidnapped by the secret police on July 6, 2013. Ye was forced to pack her family's belongings, dumped with her bags and boxes on the side of a road, and told never to return. After hearing her story, Ai photographed everything Ye owned. For "According to What?" he has wallpapered one room of the Brooklyn Museum with the photos. Everything from schoolbooks to slippers to sex toys appears on the walls, a powerful visualization of a single family's whole life.
Image via Brooklyn Museum / Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957).Ye Haiyan's Belongings at 6:35 a.m. on July 6, 2013, 2013. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei. © Ai Weiwei
In an adjacent room, Ai has projected Stay Home, a documentary about a woman named Liu Ximei who contracted HIV after undergoing a blood transfusion at a hospital and later was diagnosed with AIDS. The piece demonstrates the failure of the state to protect its people, something that falls in line with many of Ai's works. On one wall of the museum, Ai has pasted a list of the names of children killed during the Sichuan earthquake, a result of poor infrastructure.
Spanning more than 20 years, all the Ai favorites are on view—stools, vases, crabs, etc. A giant snake made from backpacks slithers across the ceiling, definitely one of the highlights. Easy to overlook, but worth noting are the two series of photographs hung on opposite walls. One series shows Ai's early years in New York, a playful young man still finding his path as an artist. The photos are experimental, funny, and raw. The other series shows the artist as he is now, often working in his studio. The two walls span the distance between the developing artist and the international presence he has become, a presence that has made him worthy of this exhibition.
Image via Brooklyn Museum / Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). New York Photographs, 1983‒93, Ai Weiwei, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1983. Ninety-eight framed black-and-white photographs, each: 33 1/16 x 33 1/16 (84 x 84 cm). Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei
Image via Brooklyn Museum / Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Snake Ceiling, 2009. Back packs, 15 3/4 x 354 5/16 in. (40 x 900 cm). Collection of Larry Warsh. Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012. Photo by Cathy Carver
Image via Brooklyn Museum / Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Straight, 2008–12. Steel reinforcing bars, dimensions variable. © Ai Weiwei
Image via Brooklyn Museum / Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). He Xie, 2010. 3200 porcelain crabs, dimensions variable. Installation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 2012. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Photo by Cathy Carver
Image via Brooklyn Museum / Installation view of Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012. From left to right: Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium, 2005‒8. Inkjet prints, dimensions variable according to installation; Divina Proportione, 2006. Huali wood, 66 9/16 in. (169 cm); F-Size, 2011. Huali wood, 51 3/16 in. (130 cm). Photo by Cathy Carver
"According to What?" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from April 18 to Aug. 10, 2014.
RELATED: What Has Ai Weiwei Done in 2013?