By Scott L. Miley
The Herald Bulletin
Americans are often hard-pressed to emphathize with victims of authoritarian foreign regimes. Even in a vast social network world, we find ways to stay removed from becoming activists against oppression.
It often takes unsettling images of hunger, genocide or natural disasters to jolt us into action.
That’s why the current Indianapolis Museum of Art exhibit by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei (pronounced way-way) is intriguing but ultimately without needed connections. Visitors are treated to an overview of the provocative art and wide use of different media but his anger hits us hard only once.
Known as being commissioned for and then distancing himself from the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium of the Beijing Olympics, Weiwei, born in 1957, has been jailed for protests against Chinese officials. In 2008, he was outraged when the Sichuan earthquake leveled schoolhouses and no government investigation was conducted on the shoddy construction of the buildings. He supported the “Citizen’s Investigation” project to collect the names of more than 5,300 children killed in the quake.
This project is the most revealing exhibit in the Indy show. Weiwei and crew salvaged twisted steel rebar from the collapsed buildings, straightened the rods out and stacked them in a 50-foot by 25-foot brown metal landscape. The rods resemble a topographic map but there is an ominous break in the rods — like a faultline — running through the work. As visitors walk around the rebar, the names of all the dead children come through speakers (taking three hours and 41 minutes to hear them all). Many names are printed on a large wall next to the artwork. The mood is captivating and involving although nowhere in this room-filling memorial are there faces; even photos of workers show their faces covered by medical masks.
The lack of faces ultimately distances viewers from experiencing rage. Two walls feature dozens of black-and-white photos taken by Weiwei of friends and events while he lived in New York and upon returning to China, but they are retro and posed. A 6-foot-tall map of China is made of rich Tieti wood but there is no overlook for visitors to see the top of the “map.” In another, tea leaves comprise three doghouse-sized teahouses — pointing to the traditional drink in all homes — but the scene is dark and cold.
The exhibit instead draws out Weiwei’s knack for challenging traditions to create fresh commentary. Sixteen water jugs find new life when dipped into bright industrial paints. Americans accustomed to seeing porcelain animals, such as dragons, made in China will be shocked at the porcelain work showing a chicken’s digestive tract. And, of course, there is the iconic photo triptych of Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty vase (about 220 CE) and breaking it to pieces. This form of protest — aimed at our general understanding of tradition rather than specific authority figures — seems better at capturing a viewer’s respect and imagination. And while Weiwei’s artistic resistance is admirable, one walks by the rebar from a devastating quake and sees that nothing can destroy tradition more than nature.