Who is Ai Weiwei? A Guide to Stunning “According to What?” Exhibit in Toronto

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Who is Ai Weiwei? It all started with a documentary. It was innocent enough, I really didn’t know anything about this Chinese artist, architect, activist, filmmaker, cause célèbre to some, political hero to others. I was preparing myself for an exhibition coming to the AGO. Little did I know he would become one of my favourite contemporary artists. Not just for his brilliant and complex pieces but for the political awareness which he brought to the world.

You will most likely recognize one of Ai Weiwei’s most famous and largest works: The Bird’s Nest Stadium. Built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics it is an amazing work of steel and glass. He collaborated in the design but eventually denounced any involvement with its creation. This act illustrates his frustration with the Chinese Government, at times working together (building studios in Shanghai and Beijing) only to have them torn down in 2011 and 2018 respectively.

The Birds Nest Bejing National Stadium @DownshiftingPRO

The title of the 2013 exhibit at the AGO was Ai Weiwei According to What? The title is inspired by Jasper Johns’s painting of the same name which challenges societal norms. Johns was an influence for Ai during his life in America between 1981-1993.

Ai Weiwei According to What at the AGO in Toronto 2013 @DownshiftingPRO

Ai’s practice is interdisciplinary and transcends artistic genres in a classic sense, but when viewed in its entirety it gives us unique insights into the cultural, historical, and societal contexts from which it emerged. This in turn prompts questions in the viewer: What exists? And more importantly, according to what does it exist? From what context did we emerge, and to where are we headed now?

Mori Art Museum – Tokyo – 2009

Ai Weiwei curated this exhibition with Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009. Ai Weiwei: According to What? showed in the Perez Art Museum Miami, The Brooklyn Museum, The Royal Academy of Arts in London and the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in Toronto. A truly compelling exhibition from the Chinese dissident and artist. The large scale pieces, photographs and sculptures are wonderful to see.

Ai Weiwei at the AGO @DownshiftingPRO

Some Background

Born in China, Ai Weiwei grew up in a remote area of China where his father Ai Quing – a poet – was exiled to a labour camp in 1959. Upon their return to Beijing in 1976, he attended film school and began his career as a visual artist. As one of the first Chinese students to enter the United States, Ai lived in America from 1981 to 1993. Although he did not have much success, he did live and study in New York City and created The New York Photographs.

1n 1993 he returned to China to care for his ailing father. It is at this time that Ai Weiwei begins to question how Chinese art is seen and appreciated (or has been discarded) by his country of birth. Upon his return, he began his career in earnest.

F*ck Off

In 2000 in Shanghai he co-curated the controversial F**K Off exhibit with Feng Boyi. It featured visual, performance and shock art. In co-curating the exhibition, Feng said, “We wanted to show the ‘f*ck off’ style, not working for the government or in the style of western countries, but a third way.”

F*ck Off emphasizes the independent and critical stance that is basic to art existence, and its status of independence, freedom and plurality in the situation of contradictions and conflicts. It tries to provoke artist’s responsibility and self-discipline, search for the way in which art lives as “wildlife”, and raise questions about some issues of contemporary Chinese art.

Ai Weiwei & Feng Boyi –

Study in Perspective1995 – 2017

Study in Perspective is a series of images, shot from 1995 to as recent as 2017, showing the artist flipping the middle finger against different places across the globe—many of which are iconic landmarks of their respective countries (The White House, Capitol Hill, Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum). The gesture captures a snapshot of Ai’s left hand which confronts the viewer with a universal and concise statement of political opposition. His most recent perspective was in front of Trump Tower in NYC.

Ai Weiwei has made casts of his hand maintaining the gesture and more recently has silk-screened facial masks. They are a fundraiser for coronavirus humanitarian efforts led by Human Rights WatchRefugees International and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Accidental Dropping

At the F*co Off exhibit Ai Weiwei created one of his most famous works –Accidental Dropping. Ai Weiwei was concerned with the Chinese culture as a whole and the fact that people were not properly learning about it or preserving it. By dropping a priceless artifact, Ai was essentially asking if the Chinese people really care about their own history, by taking something valuable and reducing it to shards.

Accidental Dropping 2000 Ai Weiwei AGO 2013 DownshiftingPRO
Accidental Dropping

This act of destruction is illustrated on three life-size images and is a record of the performance piece. I was shocked by the violent and reckless act of destroying a priceless Chinese dynasty urn.

Subsequently, it was heartbreaking to see other priceless Han Dynasty urns defaced with brightly coloured paint and another urn painted with the Coca Cola scripted logo. Once again, Ai is making a statement on culture and how western values have taken over traditional Chinese values. The well-worn logo is painted carefully onto Han-dynasty urn, the emblem of American capitalism juxtaposed with ancient Chinese pottery.

Colour Pots Ai Weiwei According to What @DownshiftingPRO
Han Dynasty urns and industrial paint 2007-2010

It also speaks to how the communist Chinese government has devalued and destroyed cultural treasures while selling them to international collectors. This theme is repeated when he recreates the zodiac heads which once adorned a Chinese palace (see below for more info).

Kippe Sculpture

What was compelling in the “According to What?” exhibit was the variety of pieces. Ai Weiwei uses all sorts of mediums and materials. There are photographs, videos, posters, as well as raw and manmade materials shaped into recognizable objects. In Kippe Sculpture, a pile of chopped wood is stacked and neatly framed with corbeils embedded in the sculpture. It was a reflection back to his childhood in Northern China.

Who is Ai Weiwei?  How does he impact his country with his controversial art pieces? @DownshiftingPRO
Kippe Sculpture (detail) Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM)

Straight

 Who is Ai Weiwei?  Straight a sculptural piece with rebar retrieved after the Sichuan earthquake tragedy.
Straight 2008-2012

In Straight, there are rows of rebar laid out on the floor in the shape of a seismic graph. Ai Weiwei recovered and restored the real rebar from the schools that were destroyed by a magnitude 8 earthquake in Sichuan province. The 2008 earthquake took the lives of over 5,000 children mainly due to the shoddy construction of the school buildings. Ai Weiwei’s commentary was a protest against the cover-up of corruption which lead to the building of these ‘tofu’ structures (as they were nicknamed).

iPad Oct 12 2013 2013 10 09 101
Each and every one of the over 5,000 children killed by the earthquake is documented and display along with images and the backpacks

Ai collected and documented the names of every child that died. There is a recording of every name created by Chinese citizens hoping to give a voice and recognition to the dead. In total, over 90,000 people were killed that day.

As you enter the exhibit, there was a serpent of backpacks hanging from the ceiling of the AGO (<check out the installation of this piece at the AGO). Appearing playful, it’s in fact another political statement related to the deadly earthquake. It is heartbreaking to see the images of the collapsed schools and the sea of backpacks on the ground.

 Who is Ai Weiwei? The backpacks / knapsacks found after the tragic Sichuan Earthquake where 5,000 children were killed
Backpacks on the ground after the Sichuan earthquake

Crabs

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was detained in a secret location for 81 days without charge. After a four-year travel ban, Ai received his passport once again and moved to Berlin. In 2019 he relocated to the U.K. where he lives with his family today.

The word for crab, hie xie, is a homonym for harmonious, used in communist party propaganda literature and Chinese government circles. There’s not much harmony here among the crustaceans as they are stacked one on top of the other. The word is also used a lot on the internet in China, as slang for censorship. Thinking Ai might shut up and become more complacent after his 81-day incarceration in 2011, and the bulldozing of his newly completed Shanghai studio by the authorities, the Chinese government got it wrong.

Porcelain crabs represent a double entendre in Chinese.  Who is Ai Weiwei - find out in his According to What exhibition at the AGO in Toronto
Crabs 2011- 3200 ceramic crabs was a political statement

The district government of Jiading, Shanghai, invites Ai Weiwei to build a studio in Malu township. After the studio’s construction, the Shanghai local government declares it an illegal building and marks it for demolition. To commemorate the newly built studio, Ai invites netizens for a ‘River Crab Feast’ to be held at the premises, with the police responding by placing him under house arrest in Beijing. Over 800 supporters attend in Ai’s absence. On January 11, 2011, without prior notice, Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio is demolished.

Ai Weiwei Instagram post – Feb. 20, 2020

Moon Chest

One of the more playful and interactive pieces, Moon Chest is a derivative of traditional Ming Dynasty chests. With holes in the doors, it has become a functionless sculpture. Each Moon Chest has holes on both the front and back sides so when you look through the holes, you can appreciate the different shapes of waxing and waning of the moon.

The Chinese calendar is based on the movement of the moon, not the sun, like the Western calendar system. So the sun and the moon are always in combination somehow, but to look at the moon is also to look at the shadow of the sun.

China Log

Most of the works in this exhibit have to do with the Chinese people, their government, culture or the physical embodiment of the country itself. There are two sculptures made of Qing Dynasty temple wood that have the map of China either carved into a log of wood or a compressed into a block of wood.

China Log is an amalgamation of 8 pillars of a Qing Dynasty temple destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. By putting them together there is a tie of the past with the future. A contemporary piece created from a historical one. Once again, we circle back to how Chinese culture must be preserved after the destruction. Ai Weiwei re-iterated if a nation cannot face its past, it has no future.

China Log Ai Weiwei According to What exhibit at the AGO 2013 @DownshiftingPRO
China Log Ai Weiwei – According to What? exhibit at the AGO 2013

Map of China (2008) is, on the surface, a serene and gorgeous sculpture. By employing salvaged wood from dismantled Ching Dynasty temples and crafting such a deep, unified block from that discarded material, Ai Weiwei could simply be remarking on the great depth and unity of the Chinese experience, both historical and contemporary. He could be simply celebrating the monumental scale of his nation.

Charlie Foran – audio commentary of the AGO 2013 Ai Weiwei Exhibit

Divina Proportione

From organic shapes to precision objects. Divina Proportione by Ai Weiwei, 2015 is a playful structure that resembles a soccer ball. Made of wooden octagons and pentagons, the ability to see through to the other side adds to the pieces’ aesthetic. The title of the series refers to the mathematical treatise by Luca Pacioli from 1497, which was illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci.

Ai Weiwei According to What exhibit at the AGO 2013 @DownshiftingPRO
Wooden Ball from the Divina Proportione series by Ai weiwei, 2015

Grapes

Grapes. It is a cluster of 40 antique wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Ai Weiwei takes this furniture and reconstructs it to challenge the way we view this everyday object. This becomes a theme through most of Ai’s pieces be it an ordinary sunflower seed or a bicycle. There is power in seeing multiples of one item and reassembling them to create a cohesive sculpture.

Ai Weiwei Bicycle Sculpture in Nathan Philips Square 2013 Photo credit Cameron Norman via Flickr
Ai Weiwei Forever Bicycles sculpture in Nathan Philips Square 2013
Photo credit Cameron Norman via Flickr

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

That same year of the According to What? exhibit, Ai Weiwei displayed Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads and Forever Bicycles. These sculptures featured 12 heads representing each of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, were on display in front of Toronto’s City Hall in the pool of Nathan Phillips Square.

Final thoughts

I hope I helped you understand who is Ai Wei Wei. There are so many beautiful, compelling, heartbreaking and provocative pieces in the exhibit. I reflect back on how this exhibition has left an indelible impression on me. To see art used to illustrate the importance of freedom of speech and expression, human rights and political dissension is inspiring. Although seven years have passed since this exhibit, I want to share some of the pictures that I took at the Ai Wei Wei exhibition which was hosted by the AGO in Toronto in 2013

Additional works to look out for

  • Sunflower Seeds 2010 – Design for Turbine Hall in London’s Tate Modern, Sunflower Seeds is a sculptural installation consisting of five hundred million sunflower seed husks, seemingly identical but actually unique. They’re hand-painted porcelain seeds. Each piece is a part of the whole, a poignant commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses.
  • Law of the Journey installation in 2017 at Prague’s National Gallery. His largest installation to date, it is a 70-meter-long (230-foot-long) inflatable boat with 258 oversized faceless refugee figures.
View this post on Instagram

Law of the Journey, 2017 ⠀ “Law of the Journey” refers to Walter Benjamin’s reading of Franz Kafka’s “law of the journey” as “a route of unexpected reversals and distortions that derange casual connections between origins and destinations, wishes and fulfillments, annunciation of messages and their reception.” Hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on Lesvos, Greece, were crammed into flimsy rubber dinghies, having braved perilous sea journeys from Turkey. “Law of the Journey” is a 60 meter-long inflatable boat with hundreds of human-like figures crafted in reinforced PVC. ⠀ Exhibited at the National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic (2017); Biennale of Sydney, Australia (2018) ⠀ #worldrefugeeday #aiweiwei

A post shared by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

  • Ai also created 300 separate installations in NYC with Good Fences Make Good Neighbours in 2017/18.
  • History of Bombs, 2019. Installation view at the Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, USA, 2019. History of Bombs is a work consisting of life-size 3D-models of conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction.
  • Life Cycle, 2018. Installation view at the Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles, USA, 2018. “Life Cycle” consists of a boat and 113 figures constructed from bamboo. The work mirrors the common inflatable boat used by refugees to reach Europe.

Additional resources

Prolific artist and provacateur, you will be able to find out more about Ai Wei Wei through documentary, audio and books. Here is a short list of places to find out more about the man, his art and what drives him. Be sure and subscribe to his twitter and instagram account as he uses both like a sword to fight the fight.

Social Media

Ai Weiwei was one of the first public figures to use social media to get his message out. He has used Twitter and Instagram to its full advantage. Be sure to follow along if you want more insight into past exhibitions, current pieces and the state of mind of a genius influencer. In order to find out who is Ai Wei Wei, you can follow him here:

Who is Ai Wei Wei? Films, Documentaries & Books

  • AGO SoundCloud commentary for According to What?Exhibit
  • Ai Weiwei Never Sorryhttps://www.facebook.com/awwneversorry
  • Ai Weiwei: According to What? Book by Kerry Brougher (Editor),  Mami Kataoka, Charles Merewether
  • Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2014) Directed by Andreas Johnsen
  • Dumbass (2013) is a music video inspired by Ai Weiwei’s 81-days of secret detention following his arrest in 2011.
  • The Crab House (2012) – the story behind the studio, the demolition, the feast and Ai’s answer. The Crabs installation.
  • Human Flow: Stories from the Global Refugee Crisis, 2020 – Epic feature documentary and book about the global refugee crisis
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Margarita Ibbott is a travel and lifestyle blogger. She blogs about travel in Canada, the United States and Europe giving practical advice through restaurant, hotel and attraction reviews. She writes for DownshiftingPRO.com and other online media outlets.