Ai Weiwei is a riveting artistic presence who raises hackles and hell wherever he can. Born in Beijing in 1957, he studied at the Beijing Film Academy before moving to the United States in 1981. He soaked up the colorful life of New York’s East village, and when he returned to China in 1993 he became a major and disruptive figure in the contemporary art scene there. Ai relished antagonizing the repressive Chinese authorities, and the government in turn targeted his political activism, ultimately arresting him 2011. He was imprisoned for three months and forbidden to leave China until 2015.
During this period, Ai conceived the exhibition that has just opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C, Ai Weiwei: Trace. He has chosen a world-wide assemblage of 176 political activists to portray in this exhibition, and he selected each of them for their outspoken advocacy against repression. The 157 men and 19 women subjects are from more than 30 countries, and all have been detained, exiled, or sought political asylum as a result of their beliefs, actions, or affiliations.
His portraits are configured in LEGO bricks. Ai explains that he was inspired when he saw his five-year-old son playing with them, and liked how LEGOS were a colorful and playful medium that could easily be constructed or taken apart. For these 176 portraits, Ai used 1.2 million LEGOS; the images themselves were actually constructed by others following Ai’s instructions.
Each portrait is pixelated and resembles an image found on the internet. The definition of “trace” in this sense derives from the concept of a digital footprint that people leave online for others to see. A digital “trace” is like a shadow of a traceable person; in this, digital footprints connect historically with the idea of silhouettes, shades, and shadows—the intention of all was to display the essential “trace” of a personality. For Ai, digital traces are “metaphors for freedom.” (Hirshhorn press release, p. 2)
Among the political activists and proponents of free speech portrayed in Trace are Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. It is a somewhat boggling mixture, and when asked if he was suggesting that the United States had acted as a “repressive” political state, he said, “Yes, though it may surprise people to think a ‘free society’ can be repressive.” He purposely included people like Chelsea Manning because he thinks him “so brave.” (Quoted in Jane O’Brien interview with Ai Weiwei, BBC America)
Each individual portrait uses several thousand LEGO bricks and is assembled by hand before being laid out on the floor. The portraits take up an entire floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, and they are arranged in six zones that sprawl across the museum’s 700-foot gallery space like a giant quilt. They are arranged in a random order dictated by the artist.
Accompanying the LEGOS portraits, Ai has created a graphic new wallpaper that lines the Hirshhorn’s curved exhibition walls. He calls it “The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca.” The design uses images of surveillance equipment to create intricate patterns that connect with the Hirshhorn’s unique circular architecture. But there is a sly anti-repression message as well, because the alpaca–aka “Grass Mud Horse”—has become a Chinese Internet meme widely used as a symbol defying censorship in China. The China Digital Times calls the alpaca the “de facto mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression,” and symbolizes the presence of an alternative political discourse to the Communist Party’s authoritarian regime. (See “Grass Mud Horse,” Wikipedia.)
Right (detail): Ai Weiwei’s wall installation includes images of surveillance cameras, handcuffs and other instruments of political repression.
The Hirshhorn hosted Ai’s first U.S. retrospective in 2012, and museum director Melissa Chiu emphasizes that this new exhibition reflects the Hirshhorn role as a leading 21st century voice in “showcasing the most impactful works in global contemporary art.” (Hirshhorn press release) Chiu also believes that “We are really, as a society, at a transitional moment,” and that Ai’s artistic expression offers “a reading of our time.” (Quoted in Peggy McGlone, “Ai’s building blocks are art and social networks,” in WashPOST, 6/28/17, p. C1)
It is particularly noteworthy to have this exhibition punctuate a Washington atmosphere rife with angry discussions about “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts.” Social media is a central player in all this, and when media master Ai was asked in an interview what he thought of President Donald Trump’s fondness for Twitter, he said that though many criticize Trump’s Tweeting as unpresidential, Ai likes this unfettered communication because it allows people to see “how he really thinks.” (BBC America interview)
At heart, Ai Weiwei is an artist/activist in the grand agitprop tradition. His objective with Trace is to celebrate the possibilities of freedom but to remind everyone of its fragility.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
AI Weiwei:Trace at Hirshhorn will be up through Jan. 1, 2018. www.Hirshhorn.si.edu.
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita, National Portrait Gallery, and writes frequently on media and culture.