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Last week, the terms of prolific Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s house arrest were relaxed. He can leave his house, but he cannot leave his country. This week, the artist battling accusations of pornography and bigamy has $2 million in fines hanging over his head, while in the United States the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is being released Wednesday.
At the same time, two of Washington, D.C.’s premier galleries — the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — have begun a yearlong investigation of Ai’s work.
“A friend, once reminded me, saying ‘Weiwei, beware of newspapers calling you a dissident. It is dangerous,’” Ai said in his artist statement to the Hirshhorn. “In normal circumstances, I know it’s undesirable for an artist to be labeled a political activist or dissident. But I have overcome that barrier.
“The suits that people dress you in are not as important as the content you put forth, so long as it gives meaning to new expression,” he continued. “The struggle is worthwhile if it provides new ways to communicate with people and society. Maybe I’m just an undercover artist in the disguise of a dissident.”
Whatever label he is afforded, Ai, 55, says that he couldn’t care less about its implications.
Ai is perhaps best known to those outside the art world for his collaboration with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the 2008 Beijing National Olympic Stadium.
Over the past several years, his relationship with Chinese authorities has become rather prickly, culminating in his being placed under house arrest and fined.
It is not surprising that the same artist who worked with the Chinese government on the Olympics while at the same time being a political dissident would explore and grapple with issues of conflicting, contradictory and fractured identities.
The first of the Ai installations to open on the Mall surrounds the perimeter of the outdoor fountain in the center of the Hirshhorn plaza.
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” which is open through Feb. 24, is actually a dozen 10-foot-tall, bronze animal heads, each representing one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac.
The installation is a partial reproduction of a Qing dynasty fountain clock found in an imperial garden dated from the 18th century. The original was a working timekeeper that told the hour by which animal head — snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit or dragon — had water flowing from its mouth.
The work was pillaged in 1860, and five of the original animal heads were lost.
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.
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
In October 2012, the third and largest Ai exhibit will open at the Hirshhorn. The museum will devote one floor to the retrospective “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” This will be the first time a survey of Ai’s work will be shown in the United States.
The exhibit will be based on Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum survey, but Ai said it will be specially updated for U.S. audiences.
“About a third of the works in this version of the show differ from those on view at the Mori,” Ai told the museum. “I’ve experienced dramatic changes in my living and working conditions over the past few years, and this exhibition has been an opportunity to re-examine past work and communicate with audiences from afar.”
The exhibit, which opened at Mori in 2009, will include more recent work from the artist. After it closes in February, the exhibit will travel to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.