Ai Weiwei’s Straight (2008-2012), a large-scale sculptural work consisting of thousands of pieces of steel rebar, weighs approximately 38 tons. When it was installed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, one of the many stops between Tokyo and Brooklyn on the Chinese artist’s major retrospective Ai Weiwei: According to What?, each day of the exhibition an expert was brought in to make sure the gallery floor hadn’t buckled under the immense weight. This is not the only one of Ai’s works to require a little extra curatorial fortitude: To take just two examples, Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in 2010 consisted of millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds; Forever Bicycles (2011), which we Torontonians got to see as part last year’s annual Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, is a sinuous structure made of 3,144 interconnected bicycles.
What is the point of all this heavy lifting? Ai Weiwei, whose minimalist and Pop Art inspired work has garnered increasing international acclaim over the past few years, is a controversial artist/activist/social-media guru whose work has consistently challenged the political and social status quo in his native China. He has been beaten, jailed and censored by the Chinese authorities, and currently has been barred from leaving the country under any circumstances – in Toronto, since he could not be present at the opening of his AGO retrospective, he gave an interview via Skype. His most famous piece, the appropriately titled photo triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995/2009), established him as a figurehead of defiance by taking on a few centuries worth of Chinese politics, history and culture in one pregnant gesture. The striking Sunflower Seeds gives visual expression to Chairman Mao’s now infamous policy to “let a hundred flowers bloom” in the early days of his regime. More playful, but no less political works plaster symbolic antique vases with Coca-Cola logos and primary colors, signs of Westernization and cultural history in semiotic flux.
Straight, however, is heavier. Ai and his team literally and laboriously twisted back into shape thousand of pieces of steel rebar recovered from schools demolished in the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. On the wall overlooking the enormous pile of rebar are the names of over 5,000 children killed during the quake due to poorly constructed school buildings. The Chinese government, dissociating itself from the shoddily built structures, never released a list of casualties – and so the list of the departed has been assembled by the artist, and appears on the wall above the reconstituted steel poles. The same theme animates the haunting Snake Ceiling (2009), a long, serpentine installation made of abandoned backpacks.
One way to interpret Straight is as an act of redemptive restitution, a concrete-and-steel manifestation of what we mean by “setting the record straight.” Art thus becomes, to adopt a phrase from Heidegger, a matter of truth “setting-itself-to-work” — straightening out the broken rebar is a metaphor, and in some sense a participation in, putting the world back together again. To make something straight is to set it right. What comes to mind is all the biblical language about “making straight paths,” from ethical admonitions in Proverbs to Isaiah’s prophetic words about “making straight a highway” for the coming of the Lord — words taken up by John the Baptist. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed,” exhorts the anonymous author of Hebrews. In these passages, making things straight is a sign of the in-breaking kingdom of peace, wholeness and justice. The artist himself hints in this direction, linking straightness to the courage to pursue the true and the good — in other words, to backbone: “The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight.”
But as with all art, there is ambiguity — for another way of “straightening” or “smoothing” out the narrative is through spin and sleight-of-hand. The steel bars, bent back into perfect shape, now conceal the fact that anything happened at all. The broken buildings, the rubble and the bodies of the innocent are the incontrovertible evidence demanding a verdict — cleaned up and straightened out, things appear to be “back to normal,” which is precisely what those in power desire. Straight thus causes us to reflect on what has been straightened out and what, if anything, remains tangled.
Not everyone is enamored with Ai’s art. Jed Perl, for example, writes in the New Republic that:
…when Ai hangs an MRI on the wall or places thirty-eight tons
of steel rebar on the floor, he fails to meet, much less to grapple
with, the challenges of art. In this way, he creates his own kind
of political kitsch.
Perhaps the aesthetic simplicity of Straight is a little too, for lack of a better word, straightforward — like much of Ai Weiwei’s infamous work, it is resolutely in-your-face. But of course, when it comes to a terrible tragedy the world has forgotten, this is precisely the point. Those who forget the past, particularly its darkest features — along with those who lose sight of the many realities of suffering and oppression in the present — will struggle to shoulder the burden of the future.
Two documentaries have come out in the past two years detailing Ai’s biography, art and confrontation with the Chinese government:
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012, dir. Alison Klayman)
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013, dir. Andreas Johnsen)