Fine Art
3:20 pm
Wed January 23, 2013

In 'According To What?' Ai Weiwei Makes Mourning Subversive

Originally published on Thu January 24, 2013 2:48 pm

How do we honor the dead? How do we commit them to memory? And how do we come to terms with the way they died?

To start, we can name them. At least, that's the idea behind two installations at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The first lists information — including names and ages — about the thousands of children who were killed in a massive earthquake in Sichuan, China, in 2008. They're printed in Chinese on white paper that takes up an entire wall. In the second, those names are read aloud through speakers. The audio takes 3 hours and 41 minutes to play through.

Both are part of "According to What?" — an exhibition that showcases the work of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

To compile the list, Ai ran afoul of Chinese authorities by having citizen investigators collect the names of more than 5,000 children who were killed when their schools collapsed in the earthquake. He also asked his Twitter followers to record the names of the dead and email them to him, believing many to be the victims of shoddy construction.

When Ai published those names on his popular blog, government censors shut it down. A few months later, he was beaten by police and had to have emergency brain surgery.

The Useless Bones Of Sichuan's Collapsed Schools

No. 2,241 on Ai's list belongs to Liu Qiang, who was killed when the Juyuan Middle School collapsed.

I was at that ruined school in Sichuan the night of the earthquake and watched as small, limp bodies were carried out of the wreckage.

I met Liu Qiang's grieving family at their home a few days after. His ashes had been placed on a makeshift altar in a small box, wrapped in a white silk scarf. His stepmother handed me his school ID, which showed him wearing a white dress shirt.

I went to "According to What?" to see how Ai has turned that earthquake — and these thousands of deaths — into art. In particular, I wanted to see a massive floor piece titled, simply, Straight. It's 20 feet wide and 58 feet long.

I watch museum visitors crouch down and get close to see how it's put together. When asked how they would describe it to someone who hasn't seen it, their responses range from the literal to the deeply interpretive.

"It's like a giant array of rusted rebar, steel rebar poles," says visitor Tom Carter. His wife, Karen, describes it as "38 tons in this kind of undulating shape."

"It's not tall," says Marian Holtz. "It's close to the floor, but it has a rolling effect."

"If you looked at it from the side, it would look like a Richter scale graph of an earthquake," Tom Carter adds. "There's sort of this seam down the middle that really looks a fault line in the earth."

"It looks like a fault, an earthquake fault," says Anh Nguyen. "That's what it reminds me of."

"It's a beautiful piece," says Helen Dickerson. "And it's also that sense of helplessness. Because here you have all this material, and what did it do? It caused no protection for anybody. It's frightening when you look at it that way."

In a video that plays at the show, Ai explains how he made the piece: After the earthquake, he went to Sichuan and bought tons of the mangled rebar that I had seen everywhere during my visit. It was part of the earthquake debris, the useless bones of all those schools that collapsed.

His workers pounded the twisted rebar straight, piece by piece. They kept on hammering, even when he was detained for nearly three months by Chinese authorities.

When he was released, Ai mapped the rusted rods into stacks of varying heights — from a few inches to a foot or so off the floor.

Straight forms a 38-ton carpet of steel that one of the show's coordinating curators, Kerry Brougher, says was tricky to install.

"We actually had to do a lot of engineering on this piece because the actual weight is considerable and the floors will only hold so much weight," he explains. "So we had to have engineers involved to see how high we could get with the stacked rebar."

An Ai Weiwei quote on a nearby wall echoes the title of the piece: "The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight."

"That says to me that people are not standing up to corruption; they're not standing up for human rights; that our politicians don't always do the right thing," Brougher says. "We have to stop being so spineless, and we have to stand straight against corruption. That's what this piece is ultimately about."

Straight Travels With Message, But Without Artist

Ai has said that his art flows from his search for the value of life and individual rights. Perhaps he would be pleased with the way that Rashita Connelly, an M.F.A. student at Howard University, interprets the thousands of steel rods that make up Straight.

"[I'm] just noticing each bar. ... They're all different shades and tints of brown. ... None of them look alike. It reminds me of individuals," Connelly says.

"Usually when something happens en masse, people tend to just group it together and forget about it," she continues. "But the artist doesn't want you to forget what happened. It's a piece that you can let it simmer and think about it and come back and look at it a couple times."

After "According to What?" closes in Washington on Feb. 24, it will travel to Indianapolis, Toronto, Miami, and Brooklyn, N.Y. But Ai can't travel with the show — Chinese authorities have seized his passport.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today, considering an artist and activist whose work asks these questions: How do we honor the dead? How do we commit them to memory?

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

BLOCK: And how do we come to terms with the way they died?

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

BLOCK: We're listening to the names of children, children from Sichuan, China. They were among the tens of thousands of people killed in the massive earthquake there in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

BLOCK: This is a sound installation created by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. He ran afoul of Chinese authorities by having citizen investigators collect the names of more than 5,000 children who were killed when their schools collapsed in the earthquake, victims of shoddy construction. When Ai Weiwei published those names on his popular blog, government censors shut it down. A few months later, he was beaten by police and had to have emergency brain surgery.

Ai Weiwei also asked his Twitter followers to record the names of the dead students and email them to him. The compiled recording goes on for three hours, 41 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

BLOCK: The sound installation is now part of an exhibition of Ai Weiwei's work at the Hirshhorn Museum here in Washington, D.C. One of those names, number 2,241 on Ai Weiwei's list belongs to Liu Qiang, who was killed when the Juyuan Middle School collapsed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BLOCK: I was at that ruined school in Sichuan the night of the earthquake as small, limp bodies were carried out of the wreckage. And I met Liu Qiang's grieving family at their home a few days after. His ashes had been placed on a makeshift altar in a small box wrapped in a white silk scarf.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: This woman has just handed me a picture of a young boy who was killed in this middle school. His name is Liu Qiang. This is the stepmother right here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: She's picking up his school ID. He's beautiful. He's wearing a white dress shirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

BLOCK: I went to the Ai Weiwei show to see how he has turned that earthquake and these thousands of deaths into art. In particular, I wanted to see a massive floor piece titled simply "Straight." It's 20 feet wide and 58 feet long. I watched museum visitors crouch down and get close to see how it's put together. What does it look like? How would you describe it to somebody who hasn't seen it?

JACQUELYN BAAS: It's rods of rebar lain out in a kind of a wave-like form.

TOM CARTER: It's like a giant array of rusted rebar, steel rebar poles.

KAREN CARTER: Thirty-eight tons in this kind of undulating shape.

MARIAN HOLTZ: It's not tall. It's close to the floor, but it has a rolling effect.

CARTER: If you looked at it from the side, it would look like maybe a Richter scale graph of an earthquake.

ANH NGUYEN: It looks like a fault, an earthquake fault. That's what it reminds me of and just how like it shifted.

HELEN DICKERSON: It's a beautiful piece, and it's also that sense of helplessness. Because here, you have all this material, and what did it do? It caused no protection for anybody. I mean, it's frightening when you look at it that way.

AI WEIWEI: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: In a video with the show, Ai Weiwei explains how he made the piece: After the earthquake, he went to Sichuan and bought tons of the mangled rebar that I saw everywhere in the earthquake debris, the useless bones of all those schools that collapsed.

His workers pounded the twisted rebar straight, piece by piece. They kept on hammering, even when he was detained for nearly three months by Chinese authorities. When he was released, Ai Weiwei mapped the rusted rods into stacks of varying heights - from a few inches to a foot or so off the floor. It forms a 38-ton carpet of steel.

KERRY BROUGHER: That waves across the floor with multiple layers of rebar, almost as if it's an earthquake, as if the quake is waving through the gallery floors.

BLOCK: That's the show's curator, Kerry Brougher.

BROUGHER: And we actually had to do a lot of engineering on this piece because the actual weight is considerable, and the floors will only hold so much weight. So we had to have engineers involved to see how high we could get with the stacked rebar.

BLOCK: And running down the middle is where these two halves of the piece collide.

BROUGHER: Yes.

BLOCK: It looks very much like a fault line, doesn't it?

BROUGHER: Very much like a fault line, like a fissure.

BLOCK: It is quite striking having seen what happened to those buildings in Sichuan, having seen the schools that were destroyed and the rebar that was just twisted...

BROUGHER: Yes, you were there. You saw it.

BLOCK: ...and to see it now laid out like this, it really does - it takes your breath away.

BROUGHER: It's a very compelling piece. And he has a quote we put up on the wall right over here. He says, "The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight."

BLOCK: What does that say to you, that quote from Ai Weiwei?

BROUGHER: It says to me that people are not standing up to corruption, they're not standing up for human rights, that our politicians don't always do the right thing. We have to stop being so spineless, and we have to get a real spine. We have to stand straight against corruption. That's what this piece is ultimately about.

BLOCK: Kerry Brougher of the Hirshhorn Museum, he's curator of the exhibition of Ai Weiwei's work titled "According to What?" After the show closes here in Washington next month, it will travel to Indianapolis, Toronto, Miami and Brooklyn. Chinese authorities have seized Ai Weiwei's passport so he can't travel with the show. Just before I left the Hirshhorn, I was reminded of something Ai Weiwei has said that his art flows from his search for the value of life and individual rights.

I noticed a young woman, her head cocked to the side, looking intently at the thousands of steel rods that make up the "Straight" installation.

RASHITA CONNELLY: Just noticing each bar because they're all, like, different shades and tints of brown so - but they're - none of them look alike. It reminds me of, like, individuals because usually when something happens en masse, people tend to just group it together and forget about it. But the artist doesn't want you to forget what happened. It's a piece that you can let it simmer and think about it and come back and look at it a couple times, definitely.

BLOCK: That's Hirshhorn Museum visitor Rashita Connelly. She's getting her MFA from Howard University. Earlier, we heard from visitors Jacquelyn Baas, Tom and Karen Carter, Marian Holtz, Anh Nguyen and Helen Dickerson. And at our website, you can watch Ai Weiwei's film that I mentioned earlier about the ruined schools and how he turned that wreckage into art. That's at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.