Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn

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Ai Weiwei’s show, According to What?, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a haunting and powerful show made of the simplest materials in the midst of a clean, minimalist exhibition design. Which is interesting, because Ai Weiwei likes to pull from minimalist tenants, embed them with historical symbols, and reshape them into cultural messages that resonate with social commentary about nationalism, socialism, capitalism, etc. but most of all- humanism. The giant snake that wraps around the space is made from backpacks, referencing the 2008 earthquake in China that toppled schoolhouses and killed thousands of schoolchildren. The Han Dynasty vases are dipped in paint and put on display next to photos of Ai Weiwei smashing one. Chinese craftsmanship is highlighted in a variety of objects assembled in the shape of iconic Chinese symbols. Video works show daily transportation and events that occur in China, but the quantity and scope of their reach is a measure of industrial endurance and work habits.

And although the show does not ooze with political commentary, surprising for an artist who reached great fame after being imprisoned by the Chinese government for his art, it contains hints of this work, most strikingly in the small statue called Surveillance Camera, made out of marble. The show is even more powerful for its subtlety, allowing it to really reflect Ai Weiwei’s great love of his country, a force that propels him to champion its people through his art. It is not political rhetoric that the artist is interested in, the show seems to say, but in the humanistic treatment of the individual housed within the state apparatus. This is what makes the show so powerful.