Exhibitions USA

Now you see him, now you don’t

With his passport sequestered and his movements restricted, there is always Ai Weiwei’s art

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995/2009, and Coloured Vases, 2007-10, by Ai Weiwei. Photo: Cathy Carver

Ai Weiwei was interrogated 50 times by Chinese authorities after he was detained in 2011 on broad allegations of posing a threat to national security. Held for 81 days, he was finally released without his passport and forbidden to leave Beijing. When he was invited to the Stockholm Film Festival as a juror last month, no one expected him to make it—and indeed he didn’t. He sent an empty chair instead.

Nor is Ai expected to be in attendance at the opening of his survey, “According to What?”, at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) this week. But the 30 works on view, made in the same number of years, will give Miami audiences a sense of both his work and his politics, which the artist sees as one and the same. “My work has always been political,” Ai once wrote, “because the choice of being an artist is political in China.”

Formally, his practice is wide-ranging: sculpture, photography, video and installation are all of interest to the artist and examples of each are due included in the exhibition. But many artists today work in a broad range of media. What separates Ai’s work is that it seems to pose a legitimate threat to political stability in his homeland, a fact that takes on a whole new meaning in Miami. “[Ai’s] work particularly resonates with members of our public who have come from difficult political contexts, such as those in Cuba, Venezuela or Haiti,” says the museum’s chief curator, Tobias Ostrander, who helped organise the exhibition. Ai’s art is a “voice fighting against complacency and the ­status quo.”

It rarely does so in a blatant fashion. His Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, which stops at the museum during its four-year world tour, looks at first to be nothing more than a group of 12 sculptures depicting Chinese astrological figures: ox, ­rabbit, dragon, tiger, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rat, rooster, dog and boar. But the bronze heads are modelled on a group of sculptures stolen from China by French and British troops in 1860, and bringing the artefacts back to the country has been a point of pride for many in China. (Seven of the figures have since been recovered, all of which are now in Chinese museum collections.)

Sometimes Ai even relies on tactics that he seemingly reviles. His Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, a photographic triptych depicting the artist acting out the work’s title, quickly brings to mind the sanctioned destruction of countless artefacts during China’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, all of which was done in an attempt to destroy the old world and ­inaugurate socialism.

But Ai is no nationalist. The ­artefacts that he recreates or destroys speak to the contradictions of Chinese society, where supposed communism masks an increasingly powerful state capitalism. He relies on what history makes available because he sees that its meanings are never stable. “We never change the subject,” the artist once said. “We only change the interpretation.”

Ai Weiwei: According to What?, Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, 4 December-16 March 2014. Opening hours Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm (Thursdays until 9pm), except Thursday 5 December (until 4pm) and Saturday 7 December (until 3pm). www.pamm.org

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