My kids and I have been admiring the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads sculptures on display in the Hirshhorn’s central plaza since they were installed there last spring. They love finding our Chinese calendar characters, and we’ve spent several outings circling and discussing them all — the cool dragon, the happy dog, the mean tiger, the creepy bunny, etc. (That last one is my Donnie Darko-obsessed take.)
So, I was pretty excited to learn that the museum would be showcasing a new exhibit by Ai Weiwei, the artist behind the bestial works. “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” opened this past Sunday, and we stopped by for a first look.
On the surface, the exhibit is actually quite whimsical, with many substantial installations that use everyday objects as art mediums. Bicycle frames are welded together to create a quirky circular sculpture displayed in the museum lobby. A snake fashioned from green school backpacks meanders along the second-floor ceiling. More than 3,000 porcelain crabs are piled up on the floor. Ancient Chinese vases are splashed with brilliant paint colors. A large expanse of steel rods laid out in a long expanse resemble a boardwalk or rolling terrain.
But reading about the works — the meaning behind them and, in some cases, the origins of the materials — provides a completely different, more serious, and sometimes somber perspective of the exhibit. The bicycle sculpture, entitled “Forever,” is an updated version of Weiwei’s “Forever Bicycles” piece that symbolizes cultural changes in China. “Snake Ceiling” honors the victims, many of them young students, of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The crab heap called “He Xie” is a statement about censorship. The vases doused with paint represent the clash between traditional and contemporary culture. The steel rods, nearly 40 tons worth, were salvaged from the earthquake rubble and straightened to make “Straight.”
There are many more large installations, about 25 total, along with photographs displayed on walls and smaller works that are equally profound and thought provoking — when you delve into them. On aesthetic alone, the art doesn’t necessarily convey its weighty intentions, and most of the works are quite extraordinary and fun to view. This is why I’d recommend it for adults and kids alike; regardless of whether children will “get” it, there is a good chance they will enjoy it. Though I should warn: This isn’t an interactive exhibit like Suprasensorial was, and we heard alarms going off everywhere as curious visitors got too close to the works.
I’ll definitely be checking out “According to What?” again (and again) while it’s here. And I need to make at least one visit sans kids… those alarms that were going off, a couple of them were due to my overzealous babes.
“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” will be on exhibit as the Hirshhorn through February 24, 2013. Museum hours are 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is free.