Shortly after entering “According to What,” Ai Weiwei’s exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I experienced a magic moment, in my encounter with “Tea House”, a deceptively simple installation by the artist.
Here’s what this piece usually looks like. It smells just like tea: because it is tea. It’s a model of a house, made of tea.
Tea house. Get it? As with so many of Weiwei’s pieces, there’s an element of wit.
In addition to the model house, there’s a kind of base, a loose surface of leafy material (tea?!). Notice how perfect the edge of that loose material is in the photo.
I am only sorry Weiwei couldn’t be there for a moment he surely would have enjoyed.
As we stood in the small crowd bunched around a few pieces, we noticed something rather extraordinary. An older man had shuffled through the tea at the base of the piece, messing it up. I don’t think he realized it. It was an accident of course.
“Oh my God” we all thought. Someone joked and pointed at me: “you did it!” I giggled and denied it. But of course it was this elderly man who had walked without picking up his feet. You’re not supposed to touch the art, let alone destroy it. But accidentally, this man had shuffled across the floor, messing up a little bit of the edge of the piece.
I looked down and went to photograph it.
A gallery staff member told me I couldn’t photograph this.
Excuse me? I couldn’t take a picture, why exactly? This piece, by an artist who seems to love impromptu acts of destruction & the defiance of authority, would be defended by an authoritarian act? How ironic indeed.
And I said all this, laughing my head off to the gallery staffer, and a couple of other bystanders who agreed.
This is the same artist whose documentary film begins with a lovely little set-piece.
- One of the artist’s many cats is messing up his art.
- A colleague tries to stop the cat.
- But Weiwei says the first line of the film in English, telling him to let the cat be: “he’s not going to destroy it”.
And so of course I was allowed to take my really bad photo. Here it is…
At that moment, irony or not, it was clear we don’t live in a totalitarian place. We have the luxury of jokes in this country. By the time the show opens of course the work will surely be tidied up and perhaps its edge properly protected.
I had a moment, looking at the photo, when I ran through my head, “what would Ai Weiwei have said”? It was a startling echo of the classic question that gets asked: “what would Jesus say” or “what would The Buddha say”… OR plug in your favourite God or authority figure.
I think that answers a key question that Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO’s Director & CEO posed in his introductory remarks. Is Ai Weiwei a great artist, or just famous for the moment? It’s a brave question. But I think Teitelbaum is on a winning streak at AGO, bringing in a succession of wonderful shows over the past few years, and his question shows a man and a museum who truly understand what they’re doing.
And the art? I think the short answer is that one doesn’t dare answer such questions prematurely. I only know that there’s much in this show to move you, to make you think, to make you laugh, and possibly make you cry. And that’s more than I would say for most installation art I’ve seen in my life.
Some of Weiwei’s work is provocative in a sophomoric vein. The photos of famous world landmarks with a middle finger raised? This isn’t profound art, but it makes me giggle.
Sometimes the humour is subtler. For example, “He xie” means “river crab”, and also sounds like the word for “harmonious” in Mandarin. We’re told that the word figures prominently in propaganda, particularly when dissent is being silenced. The work at the gallery –which shows a vast crowd of many little crabs—commemorates a celebratory feast of crab at his house where he was under house arrest.
There’s Straight, a much more difficult piece. The title tells you a great deal about the piece. It’s made of literally tons of rebar, salvaged from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Each of the many recovered pieces has been straightened: an enormous effort. The resulting piece has a stillness and dignity of a tombstone monument. I am reminded in spite of myself of the twisted ruins of the World Trade Centre, and the intimations of human mortality & death seen in the destroyed remnants of buildings. I spent a great deal of time looking at this piece from different angles.
Weiwei’s work is often very big, very monumental. I suppose this is something architects figured out in Ancient times: that size matters.
My favourite is among his biggest, namely the Snake Ceiling. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to the piece, having been prepared by the powerful images of mothers crying, children calling for help from inside damaged schools, and the pictures of piles of knapsacks. I couldn’t help thinking that as a parent, a knapsack is a poignant image, impersonal in one sense, but very directly personal if one thinks of it as part of the ongoing conversation between parents and children, sent off daily with a lunch, perhaps a sweater or books inside. The snake made from the knapsacks is a powerful answer to the sad behaviour of the Chinese government, a kind of bold totem.
There’s much in the show to move you, some pieces more political than others. Weiwei the activist-artist appeals to our emotions more directly than any installation artist I’ve ever seen.