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Speaking Up: Brooklyn Musem's Ai Wei Wei and Swoon exhibits spark activism

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Despite the blasting AC, just take a look around inside the Brooklyn Museum and you’ll realize it’s on fire. Alight with messages of social activism and civic engagement, the storied institution shows it has its finger firmly on the pulse of social revolution. Displaying groundbreaking works by Ai Wei Wei and Brooklyn native Swoon, the breadth of topics and scale of space in these exhibits is breathtaking.

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Let's start with Ai Wei Wei, social instigator and critic extraordinaire. After all, he has cemented his status as internationally renowned provocator, invoking both the Chinese population and the international community to examine of negligence by the Chinese government. He is especially critical of infringement upon personal rights of Chinese citizens and of examples of the authorities avoiding responsibility for national tragedies as natural disasters. In his Study in Perspective series images on view here, Ai Wei Wei’s middle finger is captured in two photographs, facing two seats of power: the White House in America and the Tiananmen Gate in China’s Tiananmen square. The non-too-subtle message here also betrays Ai’s continual and effervescent sense of wry humor. Despite the censorship he has undergone, he is not shy from provoking more response from authorities. Another installation work near the entrance of the museum was composed of separated metallic blocks, nondescript from the outside but forming what seemed to be miniature detention cells once you viewed the miniature Ai with prison guards in the enclosed diorama. The power of your presence is ominous now: suddenly, you feel guilty of intruding and even surreptitiously condoning this house arrest.

Two very powerful large scale installation pieces dealt with the failure of Chinese authorities to cope with fallout from natural disasters’ effects on the people of China. The first of these works, Snake Ceiling (2009), you view from below: entering a gallery, you look up to see a geometric snake winding its way around the ceiling, eventually realizing it is composed of children’s school backpacks. The absence of schoolchildren only underscores Ai’s pointed statement on their loss in the Sichuan province earthquake in 2008 that wound up killing an estimated 70,000 people (with nearly another 20,000 unaccounted for). Another work dealing with this large scale catastrophe is in itself large scale, taking up the floor of another gallery. Straight (2008-2012) is composed of meticulously re-straightened rebar extracted from the earthquake rubble and reassembled into a long, undulating rectangular sculpture of varying heights. It is simultaneously visually arresting and unnaturally disturbing.

Following Venus in retrograde back to Swoon, her work seems to possess a salve entirely foreign to Ai’s shock and awe art. While both artists work almost primarily in installation, Swoon’s site-specific takeover in Submerged Motherlands is immersive and awe-filling. Managing to be both organic and intricately detailed, this inspiring tribute to motherhood and mother nature is soothing yet still interrogative about societal values today. Centering a gigantic installed tree in the center of the room rising up to the full height of the central 72’ dome, Swoon has created a cathedral honoring ideas of the “natural” present in our environment and within ourselves as natural beings. Images of mothers and women are interspersed, drawings and works on paper, throughout the installation. Also present are machines and evidence of human society, with a twist: all constructed from natural elements. No plastic present here, only organic and naturally derived materials. The scale of size and detail are both equally impressive: taking a detour within a hut near the tree, visitors encounter a cardboard honeycomb intertwined to form parts of the ceiling. Submerged Motherlands is an idealistic and subtle conception and a difficult installation to part with.

Both shows encourage museum-goers to re-examine the social constructs they take for granted on a daily basis, from bureaucracy to consumption and beyond. By re-imaging our world the way it could be, or even the way it could’ve been in the past, the visitor is engaging subconsciously with an alternate dialogue that can’t help but provoke a re-examination of society moving forward, from the Brooklyn Museum to infinity-and beyond.

Swoon's Submerged Motherlands is on view at Brooklyn Museum until August 24, and Ai Wei Wei's According to What? , a special exhibit, is up until August 10. For more information please check out the Brooklyn Museum's website http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/.

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