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Dangerous Art

Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s installation “Fragments” is made from old pillars from dismantled temples connected with everyday items such as chairs and tables. The work is on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The fountain has been mired in controversy since resurfacing in 2000. In 2009, two of the original animal heads were discovered among fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s personal art collection and the Chinese government sued for their return. They lost. The heads remain in Laurent’s collection.

“I don’t think it’s a national treasure,” Ai said in a news release from the Hirshhorn. “It has nothing to do with a national treasure. It was designed by an Italian and made by a Frenchman for a Qing dynasty emperor, which actually is somebody who invaded China. 

“So, if we talk about national treasure,” he continued, “which nation do we talk about?”

Ai’s version of the fountain includes not simply the reproduced animal heads, but also the gorgeously re-imagined lost heads.

“My work is always dealing with real or fake authenticity, and what’s the value and how value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” he told the museum.

In some sense, this work examines how the passage of time and space level present realities.

In other words, by re-imagining the clock fountain, Ai is dusting off the sculpture’s history — a graceful fountain one century, the center of international controversy the next, and art reborn in his own studio the century after that.

Like the ruins of the long forgotten monarch described in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” it isn’t the re-imagined fountain clock that marks the passage of time, it is Ai the sculptor.

Even as centers of power shift, Ai’s animals remind us that it is art that not only endures, but triumphs.

Seeking Balance

After two years of planning, Ai’s “Fragments” opened at the Sackler Gallery in May.

The work is deceptively chaotic.

As the viewer approaches the wooden installation, however, chaos gives way to balance.

The structure is enjoined by wooden pegs. The materials used to create the piece are a collection of pillars and great pieces of ironwood that are hundreds of years old and salvaged from dismantled temples.

These older, holy pieces collected from deconstructed public spaces are joined together with everyday items, such as chairs and tables, that are mostly whole representations of the private world.

“Fragments” gracefully intersects the public and the private worlds to create a shape that, when seen from above, is a carefully balanced outline of China.

When a person lives within the boundaries of a closed society, Ai seems to be saying, their identity will begin to separate, fragment into that shown in public and that shown in private.

In fact, this reviewer would argue that the first lesson for surviving repression is to fragment seamlessly, layering and balancing your conflicting identities consciously. This dance of layer and balance is both critical for the survival of citizens of repressive regimes and for keeping “Fragments” as one whole structure.

Ai’s installation examines the complicated negotiations that take place between the national, regional and personal identity in China and across the world. 

Communicating From Afar

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