Yesterday, the GU Art Aficionados, the Lecture Fund, and the Department of Art and Art History hosted a panel discussion on Ai Weiwei, a controversial Chinese artist who often uses his art to criticize the Chinese government. This panel discussion comes at an opportune moment, as the opening of Weiwei’s first North American exhibit, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” will occur on Sunday, October 7th at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC.
The panel consisted of curators Kerry Brougher and Mika Yoshitake of the Hirshhorn Museum and Chief Curator of the Tokyo Mori Art Museum Mami Kataoka. Carol Huh, a curator at The Freer and Sackler Galleries and Carma Hinton, a George Mason University professor of Visual Culture and Chinese Studies were also panelists. Georgetown University professor of Asian Art Michelle Wang moderated the event.
Just a few years ago, Weiwei was one of three designers chosen by the government to assist in the construction of the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Since then, he has grown increasingly critical of the Communist Party. These negative feelings reached their peak after the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008, during which school buildings collapsed on children while surrounding office buildings remained standing. Many people claim that corruption in the government allowed building code violations to slip through the cracks. Much of Weiwei’s recent artwork has been directed towards exposing the injustice of this event and of other offences of the Chinese government.
In April of last year, Weiwei was arrested by the government and jailed for 81 days in a secret location under allegations of economic crimes. Today, he remains under 24-hour surveillance by the Chinese government. They have revoked the license for his company and have taken his passport, leaving him unable to travel to North America for the opening of his exhibit’s tour. When asked how the Chinese government felt about the new exhibit, Chief Curator Kerry Brougher explained that the Hirshhorn has not had any contact with the Chinese embassy, and that the relationship between the Smithsonian and the Chinese government has thus far been “complicated but quiet.”
Many of the panelists spoke of Weiwei based on their personal experience with him. Hinton characterized him as a “prickly person” who likes to push boundaries. He was also described as witty and playful. But when asked how that playfulness fit in with his more serious, activist side, Kataoka explained that Weiwei is intelligent enough to understand that he needs to separate himself from his work. The commentary he makes through his artwork is not meant to express his own opinion, but rather to challenge his audience to consider fundamental questions about society and culture. He attempts to convey the idea that everyone, not just political activists, must be held accountable to his or her own society.
“The world is not changing if you don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility,” tweeted Weiwei on December 2, 2009.
The exhibit will open at the Hirshhorn on Sunday at 10am and run through February 24, 2013. Brougher explained the importance of the exhibit’s debut in DC, where he believes Weiwei’s art can reach a wider audience and take on a larger meaning than it could in any other city.