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Ai Wei-where? Ai Weiwei’s art is coming to Brooklyn — but he is not

Free speech! A video message from Ai Weiwei was projected on the Brookln Museum during a rally to call for more freedom of expression in China.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

The artist is not present.

Ai Weiwei has a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum opening on April 18, but the persecuted Chinese artist will not be coming to present his work, because he is stuck in Beijing without a passport.

Instead, the show’s curator visited Ai in China last year, and has been working closely with him through phone and email, and four installers sent by Ai to help set the works up to his specifications.

“It’s a wonder what you can do with email,” said Sharon Matt Atkins, managing curator at the Brooklyn Museum.

The exhibition, called “Ai Weiwei: According to What?,” features new and old work from the activist and artist, including large scale installations, smaller sculptures, and photographs.

Many of the new works represent a direct response to Ai’s 81-day imprisonment in a Chinese jail in 2011, an incident that galvanized his place as a symbol for freedom of expression around the world, said Atkins.

In urn-est: “Colored Vases” and “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” — which both involve artist Ai Weiwei defacing apparently ancient urns — are featured at “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Brooklyn Museum.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

“The intersection of his art and his activism really influence a lot of people,” she said. “He’s had a significant impact on people’s understanding of the political situation in China.”

The artist’s criticism of the Chinese government, especially in the wake of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, earned him intense scrutiny from authorities in his country, which culminated in an arrest for tax evasion, detention, fines, and the stripping of his travel papers.

Ai called Williamsburg home for a brief time in the 1980s. In a show of solidarity in his one-time home, freedom of speech advocates rallied in front of Central Library on Thursday April 10, and marched to the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, where a video message from Ai was projected against the wall.

“As an artist, I think free expression is a very essential foundation for any type of activity,” he said in the video.

One of the more impressive pieces in the show is “S.A.C.R.E.D.,” which includes six iron boxes that contain fiberglass dioramas of scenes from his detention and interrogation.

“It’s a very personal experience,” said Atkins. “It takes you inside the cell where he was detained.”

The original hipster: Ai Weiwei spent a short time living in Williamsburg. Here he is in front of a store in 1983.
Ai Weiwei Studio

“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” has been touring museums around the world, and Brooklyn will be its final stop. A very Brooklyn-esque installation was also created for the show — a sculpture made from about 700 bicycles. But like most of Ai’s work, the meaning goes back to his Chinese roots, where bicycles are a major part of everyday life.

The show also includes some of Ai’s smaller works, including his furniture-like sculptures and re-purposed ancient Chinese vases.

Atkins said Ai is exactly the type of artist the Brooklyn Museum loves to showcase.

“We’re trying to highlight artists that have had significant impacts on the art of our time,” she said. “And Ai Weiwei is one of the most important contemporary artists.”

“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Parkway between Washington and Flatbush avenues in Prospect Heights, (718) 638–5000, www.brooklynmuseum.org]. April 18–August 10. $15

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Detained: One of the scenes depicted in Ai Weiwei’s “S.A.C.R.E.D” piece, which includes six fiberglass dioramas of his time in a Chinese jail in 2011.
Ai Weiwei Studio

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