It has been awhile since I visited the Hirshhorn to see the Weiwei sculpture installation outside. At that time, I was impressed by the very large sculptures of Chinese symbols and considered the technical skill involved as an artist to produce this work. That alone is humbling even if he accomplished nothing more.
The “Circle of Zodiac Heads” will be at the Hirshhorn for only one more week before moving to the Kyiv, Ukraine.
The first time that I saw his work was in London at the Tate. It was a giant room filled with ceramic sunflower seeds. The scale of so many ceramic seeds was astonishing enough, but I had no knowledge about the artist. Again, the technical skill and process for producing all of those ceramic seeds was impressive.
Originally, the artist had it in mind that patrons would walk radomly upon the seeds, but then a couple of problems happened: 1) people created dust and 2) seed got into people’s shoes. Did that portend fallibility?
After all, Ai Weiwei would one day criticize the Chinese government and contractors for architectural design and construction weaknesses resulting in the death of children in an earthquake. An artist can make mistakes and correct them on the fly by asking people to walk around the exhibit and look but not touch the art.
This past weekend, I visited Weiwei exhibit inside the Hirshhorn and discovered for the first time what he is truly about.
Over time from publicity, I learned about Ai Weiwei’s political dimension. His government hates this artist and brutalized him. I wish that my learning about him had begun differently, beginning with knowing that he is an architect. He was so trusted by the Chinese government that he designed the Olympic stadium for use in 2008.
Think about that. Any architect who is commissioned to design an Olympic stadium is truly world-class in stature. Now, examine the history of this person. He has always been an artist. He has been a sculptor. He has made a connection with Chinese culture and heritage that is planted in his work.
In one sculpture, he uses artifacts from ancient Chinese temples that were torn down by the government. The reuse of the remnants is symbolic and is part of this protest statement. There are other works like that.
There is a snake overhead made from backpacks like those carried by 5,000 students killed in an earthquake allegedly resulting from faulty construction.
Whatever he does and wherever you look at this work at the Hirshhorn, make sure that you read the details behind it or else you may only appreciate the surface and technical achievement and miss the meaning altogether.
His art and perspective intersected with historical events, some natural disasters and some political. The result is that the artist is one who is an activist for freedom and for social responsibility that is manifest in government respect for individuals and their freedom.
Incredible is the high volume of work and projects that include repetitive use of various elements to shape design and to communicate a statement.