Thoughts on ‘Ai Weiwei: According to What?’ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

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See only the Ai Weiwei works in the lobbies of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and you might jump to the erroneous conclusion that they were created by a whimsical artist, playfully making the familiar (bicycles, crabs) seem unusual.

See only the first wall of photographs—with the artist flipping the bird to the White House and Tiananmen Square—and you might assume this artist is all about anger.

But take in the entire exhibition and a more complex mind emerges. The fact that the works seem part of a puzzle makes “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” different from most other solo exhibitions.

It’s difficult, for instance, to see his substantial wooden “Map of China” and “China Log” (both constructed from the wood of dismantled Qing Dynasty temples) as separate from the numerous photos along the walls that portray a complex, contemporary China. And it’s even harder to separate the wall-covering “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens Investigation” from the work that lies before it: “Wenchuan Steel Rabar,” constructed from materials from the flimsily made schoolhouse where the listed students died. (The construction of the piece had profound political ramifications for the artist, including arrest.)

But why think of them as separate pieces, anyway? The joinery techniques that make “Grapes,” a combination of 40 wooden stools, so engaging is also on display in the simpler “Table with Two Legs on the Wall.” And those comment on “Kippe,” a work that incorporates gymnastic parallel bars. All flow into the exhibit-dominating “Moon Chest,” consisting of seven (out of 81) large hauli wood pieces whose positioning influences its interpretation. Enter the show and you enter a busy, creative, thoughtful, frustrated, angry, intense mind. 

I’ll have more thoughts on the exhibition in an upcoming IBJ. In the meantime, if you go, allow extra time if you want to sit through the just-under-an-hour film that’s part of the exhibition. The fact that you have to go through much of the exhibition before entering the screening room is both appropriate and telling.

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