Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Ai Weiwei's public art informs new show at Milwaukee Art Museum
By Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel
June 5, 2011
There is a wonderful irony in the public sculpture by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that debuted in New York last month, just a few days after the close of a seemingly unrelated exhibit of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ai’s “Zodiac Heads” is a re-creation of an 18th-century fountain commissioned by the same emperor whose treasures were up at the Met and will go on view in Milwaukee this week. That critically acclaimed show, “The Emperor’s Private Paradise,” opens Saturday at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
To many Americans who are unfamiliar with Chinese history, Ai’s giant animal heads seem whimsical, a bit of Chinese kitsch. But Ai is toying with a complex morality tale, too.
To keep time, the original heads spouted water every two hours. Ai’s sculptures keep vigil too, adding an unintended poignancy to the work. The outspoken artist has been detained by Chinese authorities since April, part of a recent crackdown against creative expression, according to human rights groups.
The original sculptures, the animals of the Chinese zodiac, were designed by Jesuit missionaries who went to the East to convert its inhabitants, only to themselves be converted, learn the language and make art, often a hybrid of Western and Eastern traditions.
This cordial meeting of artistic styles flourished especially under the Qianlong emperor, a complex man who had a taste for the exotic and who ruled what was then the planet’s richest and most powerful empire. This emperor and aesthete, however, didn’t see the rise of the industrial powers coming, and the zodiac heads were pillaged during the British-led opium wars.
That these original works, actually designed and made by Western artists and a reminder of a past humiliation and western aggression, would be so vehemently proclaimed as “national treasures” by Chinese officials in recent years, as they were when some of them resurfaced on the art market, is perhaps irony enough for Ai to explore.
But Ai’s work implicates much more, raising questions that are both obvious and subtle. The work tugs at issues about cultural identity and about how, even in the midst of globalization, audiences in the West and East still read art and history so differently. Like threads pulled from a thick, fraying rug, there is so much to unravel here.
It is also context for the unprecedented show about to open at MAM and for Ai’s own detention.
With “Zodiac Heads,” Ai recasts imperial spoils and presents them willingly to the West. It is interesting that this contemporary re-creation of a Qianlong commission comes at precisely the time that a major exhibit of the emperor's objects travel to the U.S., including Milwaukee. The unprecedented nature of this show cannot be understated. It is the first major exhibit organized by China's national museum to come here.
Some of the conceptual implications seem pretty clear. Is China peddling its once prized cultural wares in an effort to create a more agreeable image in the world? What does it mean that the very objects placed proudly on pedestals at the Met were until recently dusty and neglected in a closed off part of the Forbidden City? That Ai's heads are contemporary and yet recall the past spotlights a contradiction, too: China is opening the doors of cultural exchange when it comes to the past while suppressing contemporary voices.
Super sized and oddly cute, Ai’s bronze heads are an apt critique of its American audience, too, since many who see the work in New York will surely associate it more with their morning horoscope than any part of history. One of the things I like most about Ai Weiwei's work is how he is able to effectively address and critique both the East and the West simultaneously and in entirely different ways.
Ai has said that the sculptures explore other contradictions as well. They are about what's authentic and what's fake, as well as symbols of national identity, ideas that hold even more resonance since Ai's silencing, ideas that will be hard to set aside when viewing the MAM show.
In fact, it is too bad “Zodiac Heads” wasn’t paired with “The Emperor’s Private Paradise” more directly, here or in New York. The installations inform each other, sift the same history and raise important questions about the changing role of culture in the world.
The Milwaukee Art Museum did hope to present a work by Ai for its "Summer of China" but could not find a work that suited its budget or programming needs. This work, a version of which is also up in London (image, top) and which is about to go on a worldwide tour, must have been at least a passing consideration. It is undoubtedly expensive. Still, why did MAM take a pass on this work, which will tour to Houston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Washington, DC? Would the connections Ai makes have offended Chinese officials, whose cooperation is necessary to put on the show? Would any work by Ai have been an issue in this regard?
"The Emperor's Private Paradise," which opens to museum members Thursday and to the public on Saturday, is an exhibit of unquestionable art historical significance and, in fact, an opportunity to contextualize Ai Weiwei's detention and what is going on in China today. Yes, it does raise ethical questions, which I wrote recently and which were subsequently raised in the art world, by artists and in mainstream publications such as the Guardian and Wall Street Journal.
But one of the things that we've learned from the dialogue that's ensued is that there are no simple answers for MAM, an institution that is struggling to find its voice. I believe MAM has an obligation to educate its audience about the state of creative expression in China during its "Summer of China." An artwork by Ai would have done a wonderful job of it.