When a 40-work survey of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s art traveled from Japan to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., a decade ago, the show drew massive crowds and made the artist a star. Earlier this year, a retrospective more than four times that show’s size opened in Vienna at the Albertina Modern to no such fanfare.
What accounts for this? It’s possible we’re burnt out on Ai’s work by now, which makes sense, considering that there were four separate institutional surveys of his art last year alone. But there is nothing like a retrospective’s ability to offer the fullest possible view of an artist’s career, and whether you like it or not, that makes the Albertina Modern’s retrospective a must-see, even for Ai skeptics. With almost all of Ai’s greatest hits assembled in one space, it is the largest show ever devoted to him, and it certainly feels epic to walk through it.
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These days, Ai is best known for his provocations dealing with the refugee crisis, surveillance in his home country of China, and his own struggles with censorship. You likely know the Han Dynasty vase that Ai painted with a Coca-Cola logo, for example, or his room-sized installations of assemblages of stools, which are references to labor in China or Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, or both, depending on whom you ask.
Those works vary significantly in quality, but they are impossible to avoid when surveying Ai’s output. But really, what makes this retrospective special is its focus on Ai’s early works, which are much stranger—and often much slyer in their political critique—than what the artist is now known for.
During the ’80s, while he was based in New York, Ai began to put his own spin on Dada, the early 20th-century movement which in the eyes of many will forever be associated with Duchamp. In fact, the paradigm that Duchamp began with his readymades—take an object, do something to it, do something else to it, to quote Jasper Johns—is quite nimble, and can be applied to all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. Ai’s intervention was to interweave his own upbringing in Maoist China, meditating on the oppression associated with life lived under the Communist Party.
An umbrella spears a briefcase emblazoned with a hammer and sickle in one sculpture; a shovel covered partly in fur doubles as a Dada allusion (to Duchamp’s 1913 In Advance of the Broken Arm, for those keeping score) and as a reference to the labor Ai’s father, Ai Qing, a poet whose political sensibilities did not align with Mao’s, performed while in exile in Xinjiang. These are truly strange artworks that are hard to digest. Not so surprisingly, they don’t get talked about a lot when we talk about Ai.
The aforementioned umbrella and briefcase are all rendered unusable in Ai’s hands, but in some sense, Ai is destroying them to generate new meaning. The show’s curator, Dieter Buchhart, casts that line of thinking within the context of the destruction of the sì jiù, a Cultural Revolution–era concept related to the undoing of old Chinese ways to make way for new Communist ones.
Ai has continued to create readymades, though they have begun to buckle under the weight of all the meaning they’re supposed to carry. Take U.S. Mail (2020), a beat-up U.S. Postal Service mailbox that supposedly refers to Donald Trump’s claims of mail-in voter fraud during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Ai deems this a work advocating “for free elections and for democratic rights,” but one would strain to see any of that manifesting here, even with the context. Unfortunately for Ai, sometimes a mailbox is just a mailbox.
A colleague once remarked to me that Ai had become a better activist than an artist, and this retrospective would seem to confirm that assessment. It is chock full of works with urgent political messages that need to be heard. But Ai’s protests are often shouted so loudly that they accidentally call more attention to himself than the subjects he’s seeking to bring awareness to.
It wasn’t always that way. The Albertina has wisely included some of Ai’s early photographs. A shocking one from 1989 features a New York policeman dragging away a demonstrator from an AIDS protest. Adding a level of mystery to this image is a trio of three men in suits who seem both fascinated and unperturbed by this instance of police brutality.
Just one work since then has been able to summon the same kind of impact: 81 (2013), an installation that recreates the cell where Ai was imprisoned by Chinese officials on charges that he says were never clear to him. He committed this dour space to memory, and recreated it, mold stains and all, in the form of this work, which viewers can walk into. Only once they leave do viewers realize there are three security cameras nestled inside, and that footage is being streamed on monitors nearby.
Ai can lay claim to that cell and that AIDS protest—he was there for both. But it’s not clear why he thinks he can make art that deals with, say, the police killing of Eric Garner. For one 2019 painting made out of Legos, the phrase “I can’t breathe,” which was uttered by Garner as well as by the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his death, is situated on the Saudi Arabian flag. (The work predates the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but the wall text erroneously draws out that link, too.)
Whether accidentally or not, Ai suggests that Garner and Khashoggi’s deaths were in some way comparable—which, of course, they were not. The Biden administration has reported that Khashoggi’s killing was approved by the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince himself, while Garner was stopped by police in the U.S., who suspected that he was selling cigarettes. These killings occurred more than 6,500 miles away from each other, and there is a gulf separating their contexts as well, but Ai seems to have paid no mind to this.
Then there are the works about refugees, which famously got Ai into trouble back in 2016, when he posed as Alan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian toddler who had washed ashore. (Mercifully, that Ai photograph is not included here, but sure enough, there is a Lego painting based on the original source picture. It’s all just as well—the painting isn’t much better than the Ai photograph.) Rather bleakly, the show closes out on this series, which includes, among other things, a sculpture with a giant glass ball perched atop a series of life vests—it can help us gaze into the future, the Albertina claims.
The work that really bothered me wasn’t that one, however. It was instead a video in which Ai sits on a raft that he found in a European sea. He floats through the ocean, and the camera remains still in a sort of mournful way, as if to suggest that he, too, could be a migrant lost at sea. He couldn’t be that refugee, however, because most refugees don’t get big retrospectives at major institutions like the Albertina. They also don’t get paraphernalia emblazoned with their image, though Ai sure does—you can buy posters of him when you exit through the gift shop after viewing that video.