Dissident Artist Leaves Brooklyn for Second Time

The artist in Williamsburg, 1983. From his New York Photograph Series (1983-1993). Courtesy: the artist

Then: Ai Weiwei in Williamsburg, 1983. From his New York Photograph Series (1983-1993). Courtesy: the artist

If you haven’t yet trekked to Brooklyn to see one of the world’s most famous international provocateurs, go this weekend to see Ai Weiwei: According to What? and get to know the work of the artist who was incarcerated a few years ago by the Chinese government for pulling the veil off its bureaucratic repression and dishonesty. Closing August 10, it’s the last stop on the show’s North American tour – a fitting finale since Ai Weiwei first lived in Williamsburg when he moved to New York back in 1983.

You know him either from his collaboration on the famous “bird nest” stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, smashing Han Dynasty vases as an art project, or from having bulldozers sent by the Chinese government to eradicate his studio in 2011 and being put into house arrest for 81 days – an event that made front-page news and sparked an international outcry – museums and political leaders took out protest ads, made videos, placed flowers on his public works, and called for his release all over the world.

Close-up of R itual, one of the six dioramas of S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-2013), inspired by his 2008 incarceration. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei

Now: Close-up of R itual, one of six dioramas of S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-2013), showing his 2008 incarceration. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei

Even before you hit the admissions booth, you’ll see his response to all of this – a series of six large, mysterious boxes that make up his work, S.A.C.R.E.D. You climb up to peer into them, right inside Brooklyn’s entrance. Inside, you’ll see everyday depictions of what it was like for him in detainment – eating, sleeping under the watch of the uniformed guards, and interrogations.

Upstairs, you’ll see an expansive show filled with thought-provoking works along with some black-and-white photos of his East-Village life in the 1980s, where he hug with Tan Dun, Xu Bing, and other artists-on-the-move and artists-on-the-run from a conformist Mainland.

At a distance, his sculptures seem like simple, cool contemporary installations. Read the label copy and you realize the subversive is at work. It looks like some found-art piece, but the room is actually filled with the full contents of a young woman’s home. Ai Weiwei found her and all her stuff on the side of a road after the authorities evicted her.

Straight (2008-2012) is made from 70 tons of rebar reclaimed from the Sichuan earthquake and hammered straight back into rods. © Ai Weiwei

Straight (2008-2012) is made from 70 tons of rebar rods, reclaimed from the Sichuan earthquake and hammered straight. © Ai Weiwei

A single room is devoted to Straight, a monumental installation made up of rebar, metal rods used to strengthen concrete calls. Except that this is the actual rebar from the 2008 earthquake that claimed 5,400 young lives in Sichuan Province when the schools collapsed due to shoddy construction practices. He bought the scrap rebar from those buildings, spent four years hammering to straighten them out, and assembled the rods into a 70-ton sculpture. Nearby, he’s listed the names of every school child – something that the Chinese government never did.

Performance art: dropping a Han dynasty vase (206 BC-220 AD), along with other historic ceramic pieces altered by a dip into modern industrial paint (2007-2010). Photo: C. Carver. Courtesy: the artist

Performance art: dropping a Han dynasty vase (206 BC-220 AD), along with other historic ceramic pieces altered by a dip into modern industrial paint (2007-2010). Photo: C. Carver. Courtesy: the artist

How and why does he do it? Find out by listening to Ai Weiwei’s answers to visitors’ questions. You’ll have quite an insight to his thought process, since there are 45 pages of video Q&A. Well worth the time to meet this brave, inspirational artist-activist.

He’s simply one of the top contemporary artists working today and you owe it to yourself to experience work that literally takes on the world. Kudos to the Brooklyn Museum for also publishing the amazing teacher’s guide, which asks students to ponder and think about news, authority, and speaking out.

Watch as the Brooklyn crew assembles Stacked, Ai Weiwei’s 2014 sculpture made from 700 bicycles, a comment on the transportation traditionally used by Chinese commuters until the dawn of the smog-inducing automobile. It’s all happening under the watchful Egyptian eye on Brooklyn’s main floor:

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