In the pristine surroundings of the Sam & Ayala Zacks Pavilion in Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, 38 tons of rusted steel columns stretch 40 feet across the gallery’s polished cement floor.
Each of those pieces of rebar, wrested from the mangled ruins of school buildings that crumbled like sand castles during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and painstakingly straightened, one by one, represents the life of one of 5,000 schoolchildren who died in the disaster.
In the space between the rows of rebar, if you look closely enough, you can discern the faint outline of the Longmenshan Fault, along which the earthquake occurred. The hulking and improbably elegant piece, simply titled “Straight,” is the work of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, the subject of the powerful and concise retrospective “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” which runs through Oct. 27 in the Toronto gallery.
That piece is perhaps the crowning achievement in Ai’s long and diverse art career, which has been the subject of intense discussion and scrutiny around the world since his 2011 arrest by the Chinese government on trumped-up charges of tax evasion. He remains under constant surveillance and is not allowed to leave the country, lending an uncomfortable relevance and urgency to his work. Among a growing body of sculpture and photography, that work also includes the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, which he co-designed in advance of the 2008 Olympics.
This powerful and concise retrospective, curated by Mami Kataoka, is a testament to the artist’s searing intelligence and argument for the power of art in the face of political oppression.
There is no better example of Ai’s skill as a conceptual artist than “Straight,” which contains both his deep grief for the victims of the 2008 earthquake and a dangerous critique of a government seeking to erase its role in the shoddy construction that contributed to the quake’s high death toll. That government, according to Ai, worked diligently to conceal the names of the children who died in an effort to minimize its own responsibility.
But on the gallery wall not far away from all that undulating rebar, the names of 5,000 children who died in the quake are printed, the result of months of research by Ai and his team. The sound of recorded voices reading those names echoes through the gallery.
The work that Ai pulled from the loosely packed rubble of the 2008 quake is beautiful and devastating, a topographical map of death and memory. It reanimates rust and rubble into an elegant form. It honors the memory of victims of injustice by the almost ritualistic act of straightening mangled pieces of metal, as if attempting to smooth out the wrinkles of the past. It issues a loud rebuke against the Chinese government, which has worked actively to cover up its mistakes. And it amplifies the pain of a local crisis so that it can be felt and understood by the entire world.
While it’s tough to tear your attention away from “Straight,” the exhibition also provides a remarkably efficient crash course in Ai’s artistic evolution during the past two decades.
It includes the work that put him on the map, a series of blurry photographs of his middle finger gesturing unkindly toward world monuments like the Eiffel Tower and White House. It gives good play to a photographic triptych of Ai smashing a priceless Chinese artifact into a thousand shards in a dramatic depiction of his animosity toward blind tradition.
Elsewhere, we see his stunning series of “Moon Chests,” enormous wooden boxes with circular holes cut in them that, when glimpsed from the right angle, reveal the various phases of the moon. There’s a long piece of glossy timber that reveals its secret only when you lie on your stomach on the gallery floor and peer into it: a hole in the shape of a map of China runs the entire length of the sculpture.
A simple but compelling sculpture made out of dozens of bicycles rises in the center of the gallery, commenting in its simple and symmetrical way on issues of transportation and interdependence in contemporary China. Another huge bicycle sculpture by Ai was recently unveiled in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square as part of the city’s annual Nuit Blanche event.
While it is fascinating to see how Ai blossomed into the worldwide sensation he is today by looking at his pre-2004 work, it is his increasingly smart missives against the Chinese state that command and reward our attention today.
We don’t necessarily need to read George Orwell, Ray Bradbury or even Dave Eggers for chilling stories about the soul-stripping excesses of tech-savvy regimes. We can simply look at the sculptures of Ai, who has poured his concern for the lives and liberties of his countrymen like molten lead into nearly every piece of art he has produced in the past decade.
To some more jaded art connoisseurs, the work in “According to What?” might seem too simplistic, too eager to trumpet a political stance or unwilling to construct a more difficult maze between the viewer and the social concerns of the artist.
But far too much conceptual art of the past 30 years has sentenced itself to irrelevance in the eyes of intelligent art fans who lack graduate degrees in art history and critical theory. Too many artists still feel compelled to seal up their worthwhile ideas behind too many layers of jargon or too many mind-numbing references to art history. Some of them might view an attempt to boil down a complex human rights issue to the head of a pin, as “Straight” does with such jaw-dropping intelligence and grace, to be an impossibility.
But not Ai Weiwei. Thankfully, for the people he represents and the art world at large, Ai Weiwei gets straight to the point.