Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has fearlessly courted controversy throughout the course of his storied career. His ceaseless irreverence has led to arrest, garnered international celebration and eventually caused authorities to take possession of his passport. Marrying methods of contemporary Western art with traditional practices, Weiwei has amassed a huge body of work that has been curated for North American audiences for the first time.
According to What? is a survey of more than 40 artworks across a variety of platforms. Its exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario is the only Canadian stop on the North American tour, with a concurrent installation in Nathan Phillips Square. The stunning show was organized by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.
Weiwei’s installation Straight (2008–2012) is made of 38 tons of rebar steel collected from schoolhouses following the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province that claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people, most of whom were children. Each piece of steel, which was painstakingly straightened and assembled, is representative of each individual life the earthquake claimed.
Weiwei’s frustration with the Chinese government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the poor construction of the schoolhouses is hauntingly echoed in Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation (2008–2011). The Citizens’ Investigation Project, founded by Weiwei, endeavoured to recover the names, gender, year and grade of each victim. The staggering list is printed on a giant wall as well as in the artist’s Beijing studio.
Forever (2003) is a circular sculpture of 42 deconstructed bicycles. The dizzying sculpture makes reference to The Forever Company, which was China’s leading manufacturer of bicycles. The piece is a commentary on modernization and the absence of bicycles on city streets as people become more and more reliant on automobiles and public transit. Forever is a glaring example of how crosscultural parallels are easily discernible throughout the artist’s work.
On Thursday, Sept 5, Ai Weiwei invites visitors to a live video chat with AGO’s director and CEO, Matthew Tietelbaum, in which he’ll discuss his current exhibition and more.