Friday, November 16, 2012

"According to What?"

On vacation (a couple of weeks ago, just now getting my land legs) I probably took in 7 or 8 museums a day. Literally. This is easy to do in New York City and Washington DC. There might be one or two we missed. Maybe.

So in my crazy circuit of museum hopping (it’s all a blur) we were in the Hirshhorn Museum—one of the Smithsonians—and stumbled into an exhibit on famous Chinese artist and activist Weiwei “According to What?”

Exactly—according to what? There was a sandbox of sunflower seeds, or an installation consisting of a conflagration of sand crabs, like scarabs, flamingo pink and shrimp gray, massed up in a small gallery room. It was the kind of art that makes one question: What is art?

 It provokes the response—I could do that or what makes Weiwei so great.

But, as one turns corners in the gallery, you keep running into things that boggle the mind, until even your own perspective is skewed. His box sculptures are out of the box. His world view is outside the box. Everything that defines this artist is out of the box.

Weiwei is most famously known for the landmark Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing where the 2008 Olympics was held. 

He was arrested for his representations of the Sichuan earthquake aftermath—where the government was embarrassed when it was revealed how many schools were shoddily constructed and 5,000 school children were buried alive. He had a sculpture in the exhibit eerily comprised of typical student backpacks. 

A way to remember those needlessly lost. He used rusty ribar to exemplify a geographic faultline.

It’s not the kind of art someone is going to buy or showoff in their highrise apartment. It was meant to get under the skin, irritate the authorities. There were self-portrait photographs Weiwei took of himself as he was being arrested.
 He also included a doctor’s x-ray of his head after he was beaten by police. 

Another Weiwei method is to use traditional Chinese techniques to create art that is both modern and antique. Stuck into the middle of a stack of logs would be some brass fitting off a temple destroyed to make way for development. See—he just can’t leave it alone. Everything is a statement of how he feels living in the “new” China.

Anyway, since this blog is about memory, I copied down a quote from Weiwei about memories. Keep in mind he lives in China, a place that is in a hurry to leave its past behind, to move forward. In fact it is constantly reinventing itself. Chairman Mao was famous for his ever-revolving 5-year plans. At one time the countryside was deemed the backbone of the nation. Now it is the cities. Everyone wants to move to the cities and work in a factory. Here is what Weiwei said:

“The more quickly one is moving, the more frequently one grabs hold of memories.”

Weiwei is helping China and its leaders to remember, to not forget. Its children, the least of these, its elderly, the anonymous factory worker in hazardous conditions, the milk tainted with mercury.

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