by David M. Roth
Confusing the fake and the real and lacing the confusion with fat dollops of irony are two of Ai Weiwei’s favorite pursuits. In his current show of pictures made with LEGOs, the plastic children’s toy, the Chinese dissident artist does a bit of both. It’s not an approach many artists would employ; the modular assembly required by LEGOs would probably scare off brush-wielding painters and probably sculptors, too. But for Ai, who’s long modeled his work on the thinking of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, these multi-hued readymades hold an attraction his artistic forbearers would have likely embraced, if for no other reason than their easy replicability (Warhol) and industrial design (Duchamp).
Ai first took up LEGOs in 2007 and later expanded his use of them to an artisanal-industrial scale with his much-vaunted portraits of political prisoners, shown eight years ago at Alcatraz in the exhibition titled @ Large. This show, Everyday Monuments, continues apace with a set of similarly conceived and constructed panels representing the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, an outgrowth of an earlier (2010) series of large-scale, column-mounted bronze “busts” that travelled to 21 cities under the title Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads.
Setting aside for a moment the cultural, political and financial controversies in China that sparked Ai’s interest in portraying these creatures, the most striking aspect of the show is the way Ai uses LEGOs to place his own imprint on “glitch aesthetics,” a term of art used to denote corrupted digital images like those that appear on your TV screen when the cable signal goes haywire. Like pixels, which are essentially electronic color swatches, LEGOs can be strung together as modular “brushstrokes” to create recognizable images, the main difference being that LEGOs, no matter how adroitly deployed, can never approach the level of resolution found in painting or photography. Each picture in Everyday Monuments exploits that gap by crudely “resolving” into forms that coalesce only at a distance. Up close, they shatter into incoherence, and it’s in that zone, between readability and illegibility, that the images gather strength. You may look at them and recognize (or fail to see) whatever it is the artist seeks to show – a tiger, a ram, a snake, a dragon, a dog and so forth – but the bigger, more satisfying jolt comes from recognizing how Ai’s efforts intersect with the history of painting and photography. Pointillism, evidenced in the shallow craters that dot the surface of every LEGO brick, is the most obvious touchstone. Other associations that spring to mind include the Ben-Day dots that Roy Lichtenstein copied from comics and made famous; Chuck Close’s use of painterly, biomorphic marks to affect the look of photorealism; early 20th-century wire photos like those recently discovered and brought to light by David Pace and Stephen Wirtz; and the video art of Jim Campbell whose works test the limits of cognition by degrading moving images to a point where they reside at the far edge of readability. These, of course, are not the usual thoughts triggered by Ai’s art, which typically run more towards issues of free speech than to matters of art history, although not entirely, as I’ll explain momentarily.
What’s immediately clear is that this isn’t kid’s play. Each image was designed and modelled on a computer before being committed to physical form in bold colors reminiscent of those Warhol used in certain silkscreen prints, e.g., Marilyn Monroe (1967). They also differ markedly in character from Trace, the collective title assigned to the 176 LEGO images he made of political prisoners that he displayed in @ Large (2014-15), prompting visitors to send 92,829 postcards to those incarcerated. Those pictures hewed closely to the source images on which they were based. Each, in varying degrees, was abstract but far less so than the zodiac pictures on view here, which are chromatically bolder by several orders of magnitude, yet more challenging to decipher, owing to extreme figure-ground contrasts that help transform the animals’ faces into shot-through apparitions. No one has ever accused Ai of being a painter, but with this body of work, fabricated in 2018, he appears to have unwittingly thrown his hat into the ring. Several pieces even go so far as to mimic the look of drips – an ironic twist if ever there was one. The greater irony is that Ai used a petrochemical-based, analog toy to replicate digital-era artifacts, an emblem of technological failure that only began acquiring aesthetic currency in the past two decades.
The backstory behind this undertaking concerns the contested history of a group of bronze animal heads that functioned as a water-spouting clock in an 18th-century imperial palace outside Beijing known as the Yuan Ming Yuan. Ai’s interest in them stemmed from the fact that Chinese artisans had no hand in making them. Italian Jesuits created the originals in the employ of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, a ruler whose reign (1735-96) might have been considered progressive because of his interest in western culture and his hiring of the noted polymath Giuseppe Castiglione to create the European wing of that structure. That legacy remains mired in controversy. Ai called the animal heads “western playthings,” bastardized versions of older designs that he says better reflect Chinese history and culture.
The story behind that story begins when British and French forces, at the end of the second Opium War (1856-60), sacked the Yuan Ming Yuan and stole the heads. There were twelve, each corresponding to a sign of the Chinese zodiac. Seven were discovered in private collections; five remain unaccounted for. The Chinese call this era the “period of national humiliation,” a characterization drilled into every schoolchild. So, when several heads turned up at auction between 2000 and 2009, the public outcry was intense. China called them “national treasures” and accused Christie’s and the sellers of looting. Then, in an about-face, the government-run Poly Museum, between 2000 and 2003, purchased five of those heads for a staggering $116.76 million.
In Ai’s view, those acts undercut China’s position, proving that his country is less interested in righting historical wrongs than in twisting history to suit a political agenda. Ai buttresses that claim by pointing to the fact that local villagers, to this day, continue to cart off remnants of the pillaged site. “What is really most bizarre is that objects like these can be misunderstood as a national treasure when really they are not…They were designed by an Italian, made by a Frenchman for a Qing-Dynasty emperor” whose forebears “actually invaded China,” he explained in an interview for the catalog accompanying Evidence, a 2014 exhibition at the Martin Gropius-Bau in Berlin. “So, if we talk about national treasure, what nation are we talking about?” As such, Ai’s attempts to deal with that legacy dovetail perfectly with his longstanding practice of conflating the fake and the real to get at issues of authenticity and value.
To those outside China, all of this will probably feel distant if not academic. In contrast, Ai’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that claimed the lives of 90,000 people, including more than 5,000 schoolchildren, hits closer to home. The artist confronted the government directly over the shoddy construction that led to those deaths by creating numerous works of art. Children’s backpacks arrayed in the form of snakes and mounds of straightened rebar harvested from the ruined buildings are just a few examples. Here, in an alcove off the gallery’s main room, Ai replicated lengths of mangled rebar in marble and laid them on top of wood caskets in shapes that conform to the dimensions of the faux rebar and the approximate sizes of the victims. You could call the installation a memorial, but it’s really an indictment, the moral and aesthetic contours of which are made clear by the glaring contrast between the exquisite craftsmanship of the sculptural elements and the slipshod construction of the schools that collapsed: evidence, according to Ai, of the corruption at the heart of the regime he so vehemently opposes.
Cynics have derided these and other efforts by Ai as attempts to aestheticize and profit from disaster. To level such charges so is to ignore the pain and suffering Ai has endured at the hands of the Chinese government and, most of all, the power of art to effect change. Had Ai not confronted the government, the number (and the names) of the dead would probably have never been known. As for the LEGO pieces, naysayers would do well to ponder this astonishing fact: Postcards mailed from Alcatraz in response to Trace resulted in the release of 64 prisoners1 of conscience: proof that the machinations of the art world, however suspect, aren’t always self-serving. We can rant about the perils of capitalism, but if profits from Ai’s labors this help fund future efforts of the sort seen at Alcatraz that’s all to the good.
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Ai Weiwei: “Everyday Monuments” @ Haines Gallery through August 27, 2022.
- The number of prisoners released was tallied at the conclusion of the production of Yours Truly, a film documenting the @ Large installation at Alcatraz. That figure, the producers stress, remains in flux since prisoners of conscience, once released, are often re-arrested.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.