Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the AGO

Ai Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei.

I had some time to kill downtown last week and headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit, here until October 27. I did not know much about this contemporary artist before I attended, other than what I’d read of his house arrest in Beijing and his work on Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium (the “bird’s nest”) (and subsequent withdrawal from the festivities surrounding the event.)

There were many surprises in store for me.

Arriving at the exhibit space, I encountered his piece entitled Snake Ceiling, made out of 5,000 backpacks, commemorating the 5,000 school children who were killed due to shoddily-built schools, during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. I had seen photographs of this piece, but did not realise the medium the artist had used, nor the statement that he was making in it’s construction.

Snake Ceiling, Ai Weiwei, backpacks.
Snake Ceiling, Ai Weiwei, backpacks.

Upon entering the exhibit, I learned that there was an audio guide available via the AGO app, and with the gallery’s free wireless, quickly downloaded it onto my smartphone and dug out my earbuds. It’s available here if you plan to attend. There is also a toll-free number that you can call to hear the audio if your phone doesn’t permit you to load an app.

Perhaps the overriding message from the exhibit is the quote from the artist that appears on buttons and t-shirts and notebooks: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” And that materials and process are part of the meaning of art.

A couple of examples:

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This piece was constructed from rebar reclaimed from the aforementioned schools that collapsed during an earthquake, and then laboriously straightened. On the wall behind the work is inscribed the name, birthdate, address, and school class of each of the 5,000 children. The work itself represents the fissure in the earth created by the quake, and better photographs (from the Vienna Biennale) can be viewed here.

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These two pieces explore the notion of authenticity, value, and meaning, and the transformation of tradition through iconoclasm. He also painted Coca-cola logos on antique vases.

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Finally, in these works, the artist uses wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples. The artist uses these works to consider the loss of traditional in the quest for modernity. In China Log, constructed from temple pillars, he has carved and outline map of China. In Kippe, he has taken iron parallel bars, found in every schoolyard and a memory of his childhood, and combined it with temple wood, intricately fitted together. He states that this is reminiscent of the neatly stacked wood outside his childhood home.

These are just a few of the thought-provoking and at times thrilling experiences that await a visitor to this exhibit. If you have a chance to see this, either in Toronto (until October 27), or at its upcoming venues (the Miami Art Museum and The Brooklyn Museum), take it.

Oh, and the soft-bound exhibition guide is a steal at $8. Organizers wanted to make it accessible to the public (unlike so many hardcover ones, also available.)

[Photography is mine.]


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