Ai Weiwei’s sculpture Wenchuan Steel Rebar (2008–12), has a bluntly descriptive title and a restrained lyrical form, and includes an allusion that places the viewer at a remove from both. The work amounts to a polemic against appearances. I encountered it in the traveling exhibition “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”, which recently closed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (It is about to open at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, December 4–March 16, and will conclude its tour at the Brooklyn Museum, April 18–August 10.) What I saw was a mass of rebar—the steel rods used to reinforce concrete and masonry—gathered into a perfect rectangle of about twenty by forty feet, amounting to some forty tons of metal. The thousands upon thousands of rods are as rigid as the specs that any construction project would require, but they don’t look entirely new. They bear a patina of use. Varying in length, they’ve been heaped together in such a way that they form a carpet of rusty metal, gently rising and falling in wavelike patterns that are, at most, about a foot high. This lightly undulating form lends the sculpture a lyricism at odds with the muted material in which that form has been embodied.
The first word of the title, the name of a county in Sichuan province, adds human weight to the sense of embodiment. You may recall that in 2008, Wenchuan was the epicenter of a massive earthquake. According to official figures, some 90,000 people were killed and millions left homeless. One of the most shocking consequences of the quake was the collapse of many school buildings, even in areas where other nearby buildings remained standing. At least 5,000 of the dead were schoolchildren. In the quake’s aftermath, it emerged that the schools had been shoddily built, owing to corruption among government officials and contractors. Demands that the construction of the “tofu dregs schools” be investigated and those responsible be prosecuted were repressed. The names of the dead were never publicly released. Children, secrets, scandals— they all remained buried in the rubble.
Ai was not in Wenchuan when the earthquake occurred; the southwestern provinces are not his part of China at all. But it changed his life as an artist. For a decade, art from China had been a growing subject of fascination for Western curators and collectors—a trend that became broadly visible when the celebrated Swiss curator Harald Szeemann selected a significant number of artists from China, Ai among them, for his 1999 Venice Biennale. By 2008, when the “Bird’s Nest,” the Beijing National Stadium for that year’s Olympics, was unveiled, Ai, who had collaborated with the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron on its design, was the country’s best-known artist internationally. He was also a wild card, proclaiming that “an artwork unable to make people feel uncomfortable or to feel different is not one worth creating.” One notorious early work bore the self-explanatory title Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)—2,000 years of history smashed to bits. The same year, he began a series of photographs called Study of Perspective, each of which shows his outstretched arm and an extended middle finger before such monuments as the Eiffel Tower, the White House and Tiananmen Square.
Ai also thought that the artist ought to be causing discomfort beyond the confines of the work, by taking critical stances not just within the relative safety of art galleries, most of them abroad, but also in public, which Ai did in a widely read blog launched in 2005. (A selection of entries from it, in English translation, was published by MIT Press in 2011.) The Bird’s Nest was a trophy project that was supposed to show the world the new, modern face of China and its ruling Communist Party; at that point, Ai was as willing to test the degree to which he could accommodate the ruling powers even as he continued looking for ways to give them the finger. Later, Ai acknowledged that the stadium project was “a setback, because China became like a police state during the Olympics.”
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The uneasy accommodation came to an abrupt end when Ai threw himself into the “citizen’s investigation” of what had happened in Sichuan. Soon, his blog was shut down. Later, he was beaten by police officers while attempting to testify on behalf of a fellow investigator who had been charged with defaming the Communist Party; the beating was so severe that Ai had to undergo emergency brain surgery in Germany. In April 2011, he was arrested, ostensibly for “financial crimes,” and held for nearly three months; he discusses his imprisonment in detail in the lengthy interview at the heart of the recently published Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, by the British journalist Barnaby Martin (Faber and Faber; $27). It’s hard to imagine the situation of a man being held incommunicado, in fear for his life, endlessly browbeaten by interrogators demanding that he justify his art to them. “The accusations are ridiculous and it is much more frightening because you’ve been thrown into the hands of people who will never understand what you are trying to say. I cannot explain to them about what I do. And on the other side, they are also very frustrated. They don’t know anything about art and they have never even touched political crimes before. I said, ‘Please, get on the internet to see how people discuss my art.’” If nothing else, Martin’s book convinced me of the unseemliness of the longstanding fashion among art critics of talking about “interrogating” works of art or artworks “interrogating” their subject matter. Why model criticism on the cross-examinations meted out to political prisoners? Dropping that pretension might even sharpen our critical judgment.
If Ai’s prison guards ever took his suggestion and looked him up on the Internet, they might have found an eighteen-minute video that was shown in Toronto and can be found on YouTube. In it, Ai explains that Wenchuan Steel Rebar was produced by taking twisted rebar salvaged from the earthquake wreckage and having it hammered back, little by little, into straightened rods. (According to the video, the work’s title is, simply, Straight.) I can’t help thinking of Immanuel Kant’s famous adage: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing entirely straight can ever be made.” Needless to say, steel has greater plasticity than timber, and if the sculpture is a vision of how lives twisted by history can somehow be healed, that only goes to show Ai’s incessant optimism. Or perhaps the work is about memory and forgetting—with the way the steel holds its new form and forgets the catastrophe that deformed it, though we humans remember. At the same time, the piece is about the relation between sculptural work and the Duchampian ready-made. With art that conceals art, a lot of labor is expended in order to create a quantity of material that looks like it just came from the warehouse—“returned to a near-mint condition,” as Ai says in the video. Forge (2008–12), which is not included in “According to What?” but was exhibited at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York in late 2012, takes the same formal approach as Wenchuan Steel Rebar but from the opposite direction: It was made from new rebar carefully hand-sculpted to reproduce the misshapen pieces found amid the debris in Wenchuan.
Despite the two works being complementary, why do I find Wenchuan Steel Rebar—or rather, despite the label in Toronto, Straight, which is more fitting—to be more moving? Maybe it represents an unexamined inclination of my own toward reticence over pathos—for the wounded person concealing pain over the person who exhibits more pain than what is felt to dramatize a point. It’s a preference, one might say, for minimalism over expressionism. Or maybe my response concerns the way the elements that compose Forge are scattered across the floor in a manner that strikes me as arty and arbitrary, whereas those in Straight are presented in a manner that seems straightforward and natural, despite the evident care that has been taken to create a perfect rectangle on the floor and lend a lambent rhythm to the crests and valleys of the field of bars.
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