Ai Weiwei, Art with a Conscience, Chinese Dissident, Contemporary Art, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca., Trace, Trace at Hirshhorn
Ai Weiwei — the prolific Chinese dissident artist — returns to Washington in the sense that his latest creations are once again on display at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in DC. (See my 2012 post: Ai Weiwei: Today’s Most Powerful Artist? about one of his earlier exhibits here.)
Since that previous show of his work, I’ve followed this contemporary artist (sculptor, architect, photographer, painter, performer, woodworker, potter, activist, protester…) and continue to be fascinated by his creativity and his ability to express his views about art and society in a way that is immediately understandable to the viewer.
The current exhibit — Ai Weiwi: Trace at Hirshhorn — consists of just two pieces of work, spread over four or so rooms at the museum. The first work is two sets of wallpaper composition titled The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca. It covers much of the circular wall space on the second floor of the museum. One is produced in a gold colored print, and the second is a black and white version of the same wallpaper. When you first see the wallpaper, especially from a distance, it appear simply to be a traditional wallpaper pattern that repeats itself. As you begin to examine it more closely, you discover that it is something quite different. You realize that it is about “surveillance cameras, handcuffs, and Twitter bird logos, which allude to Ai Weiwei’s tweets challenging authority. Together, the massive works span nearly 700 feet around the Hirshhorn’s Outer Ring galleries.”
The wallpaper is actually background for the major part of the exhibit, Trace, which “features 176 portraits of people around the world whom the artist considers activists, prisoners of conscience, or advocates of free speech. Each of the portraits is made of thousands of plastic LEGO bricks, assembled by hand and laid out on the floor. This piece was originally commissioned in 2014 as a site-specific installation at the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. It was commissioned by FOR-SITE Foundation, and became a collaboration of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate Park Conservancy. It reportedly drew nearly 1 million visitors.”
The individuals portrayed on the floor of the various rooms at the Hirshhorn with the LEGO creations (using 1.2 million individual LEGOS) are generally grouped around regions of the world from where the individuals have lived, worked, and/or been imprisoned. Each room has an easily accessible video display where visitors can learn details about the activism of each individual. Some of the highly pixellated portraits are in black and white, and some in colors — often colors associated with the country from where the activist/dissident lives/lived. Each of the LEGO portraits is based on actual photographs of the dissidents, often their “mug shot.”
Ai Weiwei has said that he wants his “art to be fresh and understandable” by all, including children. This exhibit certainly accomplishes that goal. As you walk through the six or eight sections, you likely recognize a number of the names — Edward Snowden, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandala, Aung San Suu Kyi. But there are many more that I suspect you only vaguely know about or don’t know at all. The list of those he included was inspired by a Amnesty International list of individuals targeted by their governments for their activism.
The impact of these portraits is important: The portraits represent people from all over the world — every continent — and dissidents from countries with both authoritarian and democratic governments. It is clear what Ai Weiwei wants us to understand.
And finally, the scope of the project, in its creation, in its political audaciousness, and in its execution (number of people involved in putting it together and the length of time to do so) along with the process of transportation and installation is simply mind-boggling.
It will remain at the Hirshhorn until Jan. 1, 2018 where you can view it free of charge between 10 AM and 5:30 PM every day except Dec. 25.