In October, Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum opened Ai Weiwei: According to What?, the first major retrospective of works by the Chinese artist in North America. The show has received glowing reviews from art critics and visitors alike. The artist himself might share that view, if he ever gets the chance to see it.
"We had always hoped that he would be here for the opening," explains Kerry Brougher, chief curator at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. "Unfortunately, as we were in the middle of working with Ai Weiwei on the exhibition, he was arrested in China and incarcerated for 81 days."
Though Weiwei was released in June of 2011, the Chinese government's refusal to return his passport makes it unlikely that he will be allowed to visit his landmark show - the latest move in a series of conflicts between the artist and the state.
Whether chastising the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a "fake smile" to the world, detailing the deadly results of shoddy school construction after the Sichuan earthquake, or meticulously documenting the increasingly aggressive police measures used against him, the encounters between Weiwei and the Communist government seem to be in a constant state of escalation.
Weiwei's reputation has arguably grown larger despite - or because of - the Chinese government's attempts to rein him in. Without the benefit of a passport, Weiwei has increasingly turned to the internet to engage the wider world. He has found a receptive audience waiting for him.
As Alison Klayman, director of the the critically acclaimed documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, tells it, "I think, for Weiwei, the one source for optimism does come from new technology and the Internet. [It's] the idea that people can express themselves, be connected, see things outside their own context - both within China and globally."
"There is a blurring of his internet activity and his art." says the Hirshorn's Brougher. "There is no direct dividing line between the sculptures that are in this gallery and what happens when he actually sends things out to the thousands of people that are following him."
Ai Weiwei: According to What? will remain in D.C. until the end of February, at which point the show is scheduled to move to Indianapolis, Toronto, Miami, and eventually New York. There is, as yet, no word whether the artist himself might be as free to travel.
Shot, edited, and produced by Meredith Bragg. Narrated by Nick Gillespie.
About 5:45 minutes.
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