Mass-production- Part II ("finally finished")

Oh boy, it has taken me nine days to return to writing about this Ai Wei Wei exhibition, the grandest-scale to date in the US.  Before moving on to something new, one more thing about the Wenchuan Steel Rebar piece (as mentioned previously) is that, it being exhibited in Washington DC, the same city where many monuments stand erect- the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and etc., for this piece by Ai also parallels the other symbolic monuments of which marks the losses of the numerous anonymous people. In a way, the Wenchuan Steel Rebar is a monumental memorial for a period of tragic history during which the loss of many innocent children could have been avoided, unfortunately now it is irreversible. 

Mass production is the main aspect that I wish to address in Ai's works, although by no means the only significant aspect, but one that plays a double meaning.  The term mass-produce derived during the modern era of mechanical advancement that gave birth to assembly-line productions and involved massive man-power.  On the one hand, any product of a mass-production tends to overlook the significance of one individual's contribution.  On the other hand, the end-product also gives great significance to the power of the individual whose participation enforced the productivity of the collective.

Bowls of Pearls, 2006
A pair of porcelain bowls and freshwater pearls, 14 15/16 x 38 9/16 in. (38 x 98 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012
Bowls of Pearls, 2006
detail
A pair of porcelain bowls and freshwater pearls, 14 15/16 x 38 9/16 in. (38 x 98 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012
Mass-production has yet another meaning for Ai.  By the sheer volume and number, in these works they quite literally become a whole only when with the inclusion of numerous little pieces.  Though seemingly monotonous, these little beads of pearls together placed in the two porcelain bowls speaks of a Chinese tradition and history that took thousands of years to form.  When looking a little more closely, Bowls of Pearls, 2006 in fact consists of pearls each with a different color, texture and even shape.  As recorded in the history of China, porcelain and pearls were national treasures and symbols of wealth and prosperity.  Often traded or gifted to foreign adventurers to China.  Ai brings forth this idea of the exotic China while presenting these "national treasures" with a slight modern aesthetics, one that mimics Minimalism.  Since the porcelain bowls are not decorated or painted with colorful designs nor is the piece lit to be admired for its refined decor.  Furthermore, the pearls are not stringed as to be perceived as any kind of jewelry or decorative elements to be adorned. Here Ai attempts to present a collective while with an emphasis on the individual without discounting individualism which is to say, not everyone or every pearl is the same though they look to be from afar.

Small wooden box from artist's father
Wood, 2 3/8 x diameter 3 9/18 in. (6 x diameter 9 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012

Cube in Ebony, 2009
Rosewood, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (100 x 100 x 100 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012
Speaking of the Modernist influence and the Minimalist aesthetic, Ai does not directly replicate what he learned while during his studies in the US.  On the other hand, he takes the idea of mass-production and the reductionist approach of artists like Donal Judd and others to another level, that of which is unique to his Chinese heritage.  Cube in Ebony is a good example, even though appearing as just a perfect cube with its dimensions of 100 x 100 x 100 cm, however the material used in the piece is not a common industrial material.  Ebony and rosewood is admired for their malleability and often times utilized for decorative carvings seen integrated in Chinese furniture pieces of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).  Exhibited along with the Cube in Ebony is a small wooden box made of rose wood that has been pass on to the artist from his father.  Here the object is seen as a token of memory, a precious object with value and significance accrued with the passage of time. Utilizing transitional Chinese artisan techniques, Ai produced the wooden cube with the inspiration of her father's wooden box and literally combines his knowledge learned from the West and while remaining respectful to the traditional Chinese ways of meticulous crafting.

Kippe, 2006
Tieli wood (iron wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bars
71 5/8 x 112 5/8 x 40 15/16 in. (182 x 286 x 104 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012

Kippe, 2006
detail
Tieli wood (iron wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bars
71 5/8 x 112 5/8 x 40 15/16 in. (182 x 286 x 104 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012
Like conceptual artists such as Boetti and others, Ai is also interested in games and piecing together puzzles.  Kippe, 2006 consists of a tack of wood contained within the rigid form of a set of gymnastic parallel bars.  All the wood pieces have been salvaged from dismantled temples from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  Inspired by Chinese traditional wood joinery (when I was little, my mother took me to visit a temple in a little region near Shanghai called Suzhou.  There I remembered looking up as a child while hearing someone explaining how the entire structure did not require any nails but only skillfully designed joinery.  The fact that it stood so firmly for so long, it was indeed a wonder.)  While inspired by the joinery tradition, Ai designed a puzzle does not require nails or any other binding materials to hold up the structure but is only held up by stacking.  There is a photo in the exhibition catalog that shows when Kippe, 2006 arrived in pieces, and three art-handlers were trying to put the puzzle together by reading the labels on each piece of wood.  When focusing on the little pieces of wood, you will see that some ornate architectural elements have been left in tact and used to construct this piece.  These little glimpses into history combined with its now tightly squeezed formation within a parallel bar frame, again shows the rigidity of the structure and perhaps also speaks of the political stifle that Ai once experienced while attempting to identify himself apart from the mass by using free-speech.  

Moon Chest, 2008
7 chests in huali wood
126 x 63 x 31 1/2 in. (320 x 160 80 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012

Moon Chest, 2008 is another piece that is made with precious wood, the wood is called huali or Chinese quince and it is said to be slowly going into extinction.  Ai made eighty-one of these chests and there are seven on view in this exhibition.  Notice the round holes in the middle of each of the chest, they have been calculated and carefully placed in so when the chests align together, the slight off-center alignment of the holes shows of a moon slowing eclipsing as you walk through the installation.  To me, it was quite poetic and at the same time rather playful.  The moon carries a magical and poetic character, remembering when I was little in China during 中秋節 (the Mid-autumn Festival) family and friends would come and visit with a box of 月饼 (moon cakes).  I remember being fascinated by the decorated paper squared box that housed the four moon cakes.  On it there was usually a colorful illustration of the moon goddess floating in the sky with her long silky gown and enormous long sleeves flowing in the wind while the moon shined.  There are many different versions of the depiction of this goddess, but I remember preferring the one that described a goddess in a golden-yellow gown while holding a white rabbit.  It is said to symbolize peace and blessings of longevity, but to me it seemed more mysterious almost as if by eating the moon cakes it would ensure transformation into 女神 an immortal.  At the time, my mother also taught me to recite ancient poems from the Tang Dynasty 诗, in which some described prolific but often times drunken poets composing verses up in the moon.


Colored Vases, 2007-10 (front)
16 Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) vases and industrial paint
Dimensions variable
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urm, 1995/2009 (back)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012

Colored Vases, 2007-10
detail
16 Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) vases and industrial paint
Dimensions variable
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012

Colored Vases, 2007-10
detail
16 Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) vases and industrial paint
Dimensions variable
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012
For a more modern take on the ancient objects, Ai dipped these Han Dynasty vases each with brightly colored industrial paints.  The colors and the streaks almost seem Andy Warhol-like.  Ai has always been influenced by American pop-art for their unforgiving and relentlessness reminders of life and culture in a consumer society.  In most "successful and modern" or temporary Chinese people's minds, history is something in the past which does not hold nearly as much importance as playing the capitalism game of money-making.  Here, the original designs have been covered to the degree of invisibility.  While its original shapes and forms remain, these ancient vases take on a new veneer of instant gratification to the eye.  As if it no longer mattered what happened in the past, there is no more depth to be contemplated but only its surface brilliance should be admired.  In a way, it poses a difficult questions for China and its recent development.  Is the only way to move on and prosper is to undermine its past and get on the wave of instant gratification and play a part in the fast-moving money-making culture? To Ai, what most people are doing in China in order to modernize itself is to never look back and break out of the tradition.  As seem described in the work behind the Colored Vases, a photographic piece called Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995/2009. Though the gesture might seem appalling to some, however it seems to be what the Chinese people are doing in efforts to make improvements by dismantling historical architecture, erecting new high-rises while taking away homes of people who had been living in the same house for generations in order to make room for something new. 

He Xie, 2010-
3,000 porcelain crabs
Dimension variable
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012
Finally, amidst all the political changes can the new and the old really get along and live harmoniously?  I think this is an open question and a question that will never have an easy or clean-cut answer as to one way or the other.  He Xie is a new work that has never been exhibited before this current exhibition of According to What?.  The word He Xie 河蟹 literally means "water crab or river crab", but it is also a homophone for the word meaning "harmony" 和谐.  Harmony is a constant mention in the slogans of the Chinese Communist Party while advocating for people from the working-class to the well-to-do, students and teachers, farmers and businessman to come from all walks of life and work together collectively to build a better China.  In this piece, the over-crowded crabs laid out covering the floor seem to symbolize the mass population of China that metaphorically symoblize how everyone is obliged to squeeze in together as the population number increases. While at the same time it has gotten increasingly difficult for any individual to stand out and voice his or her individuality in a crowd.  Nonetheless, there are color variations in these porcelain crabs and as they try and fight to get on top of each other, inevitably a few does make it out.  China is a fighting nation for its persistence and perseverance, despite its complex and difficult history, it will keep evolving and keep on fighting until one day it gets to the top.  

Please note that I have personally picked out the pieces that I could fit in this post.  As I mentioned earlier, this is a rather large exhibition that takes up two floors of gallery spaces of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  Other pieces I recommend seeing but have not mentioned are the recently acquired piece called Cube Light, 2008 (see photo below) for its scale, materiality and like mentioned "Judd-aesthetics).  Also my personal favorite, the bronze sculptures of the Chinese Zodiac signs, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, 2010.  This exhibition runs until February 24.

Cube Light, 2008
Glass crystals, lights and metal
163 x 157 1/2 x 157 1/2 in. (414 x 400 x 400 cm)
Image taken by me at Hirshhorn in late November, 2012

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