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.”