The Brooklyn Museum’s Ai Weiwei retrospective has a before-and-after quality, befitting the artist’s career. Once a darling of Chinese officials, and codesigner of the “bird nest” stadium that was Beijing’s 2008 Olympics centerpiece, Ai became a vocal opponent of government policies, and in 2011, he was briefly imprisoned on charges of tax fraud.
Now free, he’s no longer allowed to leave China. He’s still permitted to communicate with the outside world, however, and to produce works of art that, judging from the examples here (a large installation of ceramic crabs; a huge, undulating carpet of rebar salvaged from a schoolhouse destroyed by an earthquake), haven’t suffered from his travails in terms of scale or ambition. Just the opposite, in fact.
Arguably, Ai’s situation has rebounded to his advantage, attracting worldwide attention and acclaim. This isn’t to dispute his evident courage, only to say that the wages of dissent in the globalist era are far more complicated than simply being thrown in the gulag. For instance, along with Ai’s installation of six enormous steel boxes containing dioramas that picture his time in jail, the museum has parked a display case filled with Ai-branded scarves and mugs near the elevator.
What the show does reveal is that from the very beginning—represented here by photos of the young artist’s sojourn in ’80s New York—Ai’s greatest artifact was himself, presented as a singular figure in Chinese history. That he certainly is, which has made it difficult to judge his work on aesthetic merit alone. Nonetheless, “According to What?” adds up to a powerful statement of artistic resolve.