‘Tradition and dissent’: Springfield Museums celebrate the art and legacy of provocateur Ai Weiwei

  • Image courtesy Ai Weiwei/Springfield Museums

  • “Double Stools,” made from tieli wood from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Image courtesy Ai Weiwei/Springfield Museums

  • “Oil Spills,” 2006. These porcelain constructions at the new Ai Weiwei exhibit at Springfield Museums highlight the connection the artist makes between production and pollution.  STAFF Photo/Steve Pfarrer

  • Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, now living in Portugal, is known internationally for his provocative work and his social activism. At left, his LEGO Zodiac series, 2018, in which he represents the 12 animals of the ancient Chinese zodiac in panels made up of the toy bricks. Images courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Blue & White Porcelain,” 1996, replicas in the style of the Qing Dynasty, Kangxi reign era (1651-1722).  courtesy Ai Weiwei/Springfield Museums

  • The LEGO Zodiac panels by Ai Weiwei were influenced by the time he spent in New York City in his twenties and early thirties and are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s screen prints. Photo by Steve Pfarrer

  • “Suveillance Camera,” 2010, made of marble. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei/Springfield Museums

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2021

Smithsonian magazine once profiled him with a headline that suggested he might be “China’s most dangerous man.” ArtReview magazine declared him the most powerful artist in the world. Amnesty International gave him an Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, now living in Portugal, has been an international figure for almost two decades, ever since, beginning in the early 2000s, he helped design China’s Olympic stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, in Beijing for the 2008 summer Games. But Weiwei later renounced his support for the project, saying China had used the Olympics merely as propaganda for the ruling communist party.

Since then he’s been jailed by the Chinese government, worked to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in Europe and elsewhere around the world, and in general used his varied art, including films, to criticize China for its construction of shoddy schools, treatment of dissenters, crackdown on free speech, and other issues.

But as a new exhibit at the Springfield Museums demonstrates, Weiwei, born in 1957, has also drawn on traditional Chinese materials, methods and craftsmanship in fashioning unique work in a way that fuses “the past and the present,” as one of his admirers puts it.

Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent,” which has just opened at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, features a range of work from three decades of Weiwei’s career, all of it drawn from a private American collector. Encompassing sculpture, video, ceramics and more, the work speaks to Weiwei’s engagement with a range of topical issues, including pollution: “Oil Spills,” from 2006, consists of black, rounded “blobs” of porcelain, one of China’s most venerable art materials, laid out across the gallery floor.

The exhibit has been arranged in cooperation with Taliesen Thomas, an art educator and historian who specializes in contemporary Chinese art. She’s also the founder and director of AW Asia, a New York organization that promotes the field of contemporary Chinese art through institutional loans and acquisitions, curatorial projects, publications, and educational programs.

Thomas, who lived in China for a few years in the early 2000s, met Weiwei in 2008 and has remained in touch with him over the years. During a recent talk she gave at the D’Amour exhibit, she said WeiWei “is not just an artist. He is a humanitarian … [and] an uprooted citizen of the world who uses his art to speak out against injustice.”

Thomas also spoke of Weiwei’s deft ability to weave together Chinese cultural traditions and history with contemporary themes and ideas. A highlight of the Springfield exhibit, for instance, is his LEGO Zodiac portrait series from 2018, in which the artist represents the 12 animals of the ancient Chinese zodiac in panels constructed of the colorful toy bricks.

Weiwei lived in the United States from the early 1980s to about 1993, including in New York City, where he became absorbed in the city’s contemporary art scene. “I loved New York — every inch of it,” he once said. In fact, his Zodiac panels recall what exhibit organizers call the “graphic, saturated screen prints of Andy Warhol,” the pop art master of New York in the 1960s.

The LEGO constructions also reference a set of bronze animal heads once displayed at a royal palace in Beijing that were stolen by French troops during the Second Opium War of the 1860s; some of those heads popped up at a 2009 auction in France, igniting charges of cultural looting.

“One of the things that’s so interesting about [Weiwei’s art] is the way it looks at international politics and cultural heritage,” said Maggie North, the curator of art for the Springfield Museums and a graduate of a master’s program in art history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “But he also makes art that is completely approachable.”

Sunflower ‘seeds’

Weiwei offers a twofold approach to the artwork on Chinese vases, for instance. The exhibit includes modern ceramic vases he meticulously painted in a style dating to the Qing Dynasty of the 17th century. But the show also features older stoneware vases the artist found in street sales that he then coated with automotive paint — a comment on the air pollution in many Chinese cities stemming from cars, buses and trucks.

In addition, “Tradition and Dissent” offers a miniature version of a huge installation WeiWei created in 2010 at the Tate Modern museum in London, where over 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds were displayed, in part as a dig at the way that China, during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, depicted former Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong as the sun and Chinese citizens as sunflowers.

Taliesin Thomas described some of the highlights of WeiWei’s life to put his art in perspective. His father, Ai Qing, was a respected Chinese poet who in the late 1950s, when Weiwei was less then a year old, was accused of being anti-socialist; Qing and his family were exiled to a labor camp in a remote region in Northwest China. Only in the late 1970s, after Mao Zedong died, was the family allowed to return to Beijing.

A timeline at the exhibit covers similar ground about the artist. Weiwei, after living in the U.S. for over a decade, returned to China in 1994 when his father was dying. His criticisms of the government in the 2000s earned him a jail term in 2011 and later a number of years of house arrest (he left China for good in 2015 after his confiscated passport was returned to him).

He condemned Chinese leaders, for instance, for building flimsy schools that collapsed in Sichuan province in a 2008 earthquake, killing thousands of schoolchildren, and then trying to cover up the death toll. He was severely beaten by police in 2009 — he was attacked in a hotel room — when he attempted to testify on behalf of a Chinese writer who was also investigating these incidents.

But WeiWei was able to use these experiences, too, for his art. The D’Amour exhibit includes his model of a surveillance camera, made from marble, after he discovered listening devices had been planted in his studio. In addition, the show features two sets of handcuffs, one made from wood and the other from jade — two materials much revered in China — that Weiwei made following his arrests.

Indeed, Thomas says one of the things she most admires about Weiwei, aside from his drawing on Chinese history and cultural heritage for his work, is that his art is central to his existence. As Weiwei says in a quote that’s part of the exhibit, “I don’t have this concept that separates my art from my life. They are one thing to me. They are always one.”

“Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent” is on view at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield through Jan. 22, 2022. For more information, visit springfieldmuseums.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.