Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Best of 2014: Ai Weiwei at the Brooklyn Museum

Detail of Straight (2008-2012)

For various reasons, the blog has gotten kicked down the priority list for most of the year. To make up for lost ground, it seems like the perfect time to break out a tried-and-true end-of-year gimmick. Allow me to introduce the first annual "Best of the Year" series! Starting today, I'll attempt to post every day or two to highlight an event, a place or a person that left an impression on me over the past year. The posts to come will follow no discernible rhyme or reason, other than the common thread of their collective impact on one person.

Without further ado, let's begin with what I considered the most impressive art exhibition in New York this year. Ai Weiwei: According to What? captivated visitors to the Brooklyn Museum from for four months, with a sprawling, comprehensive show spanning multiple floors. Upon entering the ground floor gallery, visitors were struck by a breathtaking and massive sculpture of gleaming steel bicycle parts. While a statement on mass production and homogeneity, the composition of identical pieces succeeds in creating a unique and energetic whole.

Forever Bicycles

Detail of Forever Bicycles

The son of a political dissident, Ai Weiwei is perhaps best known globally for his collaboration with the architects Herzog and de Meuron to design the "Bird's Nest" for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, of which he eventually became a vocal critic. If you have yet to encounter Ai Weiwei's work, I would highly recommend the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry as a great starting point. The film captures two years in the artist's life, including his arrest and eventual release by Chinese authorities.

Activism and social critique are essential threads running throughout Ai Weiwei's art. Some of his most powerful pieces arose from a reaction to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the government's subsequent response. More than 5,000 schoolchildren perished in the quake, due to what Ai saw as preventable collapses of shoddily constructed school buildings. For Straight, he and his team salvaged deformed steel reinforcing bars from the debris, then painstakingly straightened each bar. The sweeping, resultant form suggests landscape as much as abstract sculpture, with massive fissures breaking the surface of the 73-ton pile of rebar.

Straight (2008-2012)

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn ranks among Ai Weiwei's most well-known works. In it, he documents himself dropping a 2,000-year-old vase, allowing it to shatter on the ground and calling into question China's relationship with its cultural history. The photographs of this performance served as a backdrop to a more recent creation, Colored Vases, a possible statement on modernism's relationship with and displacement of antiquity.

Foreground: Colored Vases (2007-2010); Background: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)
In Grape, wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty are combined in an unexpected and dynamic assemblage, calling to mind a supernova, or a gigantic porcupine.

Grape (2010)

For Moon Chest, Ai employed skilled craftsman to build a series of wood cabinets, with circular openings carved into each. Visitors were encouraged to interact with the pieces, and upon doing so, were greeted with views that resembled the phases of the moon.

Moon Chest (2008)

Finally, before you go, take a few minutes to enjoy Ai Weiwei's 2012 spoof of Psy's "Gangnam Style," entitled "Grass Mud Horse Style." Of course it was created as yet another jab at the Chinese government. By way of explanation, see this brief post from the The New Yorker.

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