Ai Weiwei and Fragments of a Cultural Past

Ai Weiwei, who recently has become known for his outspoken activism and online activity, is being recognized in Washington this month for his artwork. Two shows, Fragments at the Sackler Gallery and the Zodiac Heads at the Hirschhorn Museum, showcase two of his major pieces. From the Washington Post:

Ai has fused a lot of perennially popular art-world tropes into a single conceptual life-as-art juggernaut. He’s a figurehead of the once-burgeoning Chinese art market, an artist who keeps the line between life and work fluid; an auteur who creates his work in collaboration with other people, like the traditional craftsmen who used post-and-beam construction to assemble “Fragments” without a nail or screw, just a thwack of hammer sending wooden peg through perfectly aligned cut holes. He’s also destroyed artifacts, like the Han Dynasty urn he broke in a triptych of 1995 photos. He’s worked as an architect; sent 1,001 people from China to roam the streets of Kassel, Germany, in one of the works he displayed in the German megashow documenta XII in 2007; made films documenting the physical transformation of Beijing; protested corruption and human-rights violations in China on his blog, which was a part of his art, as well. Yet he’s said he wants his works to be judged on their merits as objects rather than ideas.

So: the objects. “Fragments” — here in its first American showing — is defined by its material: Ai collected the wood and thought about how best to use it. It’s an embracing physical presence, dominated by the warm darkness of the old wood. But the wood, hacked and muted, embodies a complex narrative about culture and value: Once-holy temples become meaningless and are discarded to make room for progress, then are reclaimed as ruins and reassembled into an object that ends up being even more venerated.

See a video of the installation of Fragments:

Meanwhile, in New York, a portion of the tiny sunflower seeds commissioned by Ai for an exhibit at London’s Tate Gallery sold at auction at Sotheby’s for $782,500.

Read more about Ai Weiwei and contemporary art in China via CDT.

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