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Shoehorned at Hirshhorn: Imprisoning Ai Weiwei’s “@Large” Alcatraz Installation

I can understand why Philip Kennicott felt unenthusiastic about the Hirshhorn Museum’s Ai Weiwei: Trace at Hirshhorn (to Jan. 1), which riveted me when I saw it to best advantage at its original venue—Alcatraz. The Washington Post‘s art critic dismissively stated that the renowned Chinese dissident “needs to make better art, more thoughtful art, art that isn’t consumed and exhausted in a single glance.”

Actually, he did just that, but you might not know it from the installation at the Hirshhorn, whose director, Melissa Chiu, has a connection with Ai going back to her previous directorship: In 2011, she mounted Ai Weiwei New York Photographs: 1983-1993 at the Asia Society Museum, New York, organized in cooperation with the artist before his detention complicated matters:

Melissa Chiu at Asia Society’s 2011 exhibition, Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Constrained by the limitations of the Gordon Bunshaft-designed Hirshhorn’s doughnut-shaped layout, “Trace’s” 176 LEGO portraits of activists, prisoners of conscience and free-speech advocates had originally been conceived by the artist as one component of a seven-part, site-specific installation in the former high-security federal penitentiary that is now, as a national park, one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions:

Approaching Alcatraz by ferry
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Hirshhorn experience doesn’t come close to the Alcatraz adventure. But even in its diminished state, “Trace” packs a wallop that could cripple federal arts support.

The original “Trace,” along with the Alcatraz installation’s other six components, was shown from September 2014 to April 2015, when Ai was forbidden to travel. (He was held in detention by the Chinese government for 81 days in 2011 and wasn’t allowed to leave the country until 2015.) The project’s brilliant realization was achieved through an intense long-distance collaboration between the artist and Cheryl Haines, founder of San Francisco’s FOR-SITE Foundation, which is “dedicated to the creation, understanding, and presentation of art about place.”

Cheryl Haines, speaking to the press at the Alcatraz preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

You can read detailed descriptions of the San Francisco show’s seven components (including “Trace”) on FOR-SITE’s website for @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Sometimes disturbing, sometimes exhilarating, that show was always deeply engrossing.

When a work is intended to be site-specific (as “Trace” was), site matters. Here’s how the monumental floor piece looked when I stood transfixed by it in at the press opening in Alcatraz’s raw, cavernous space, evoking the prisons where many of the subjects did time:

Ai Weiwei’s “Trace” at Alcatraz
Screenshot from my CultureGrrl Video

And here’s how Ai’s LEGO legerdemain plays in Washington, D.C., tamed by the dignified museum setting and prettified by Ai’s patterned wallpaper (created for the Hirshhorn show), which is adorned with images of surveillance cameras, handcuffs, and Twitter bird logos. Unlike Alcatraz’s awesome uninterrupted vista, the shorter sightlines of the Hirshhorn’s 700-foot circular pathway allow only partial views of the battalion of resisters, weakening the piece’s cumulative force:

Installation shot from Hirshhorn’s exhibition
Photo by Cathy Carver

Here’s a closeup detail of the wall covering that you can glimpse in the above photo:

Detail, “The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Llama but Is Really an Alpaca”
Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

One other change from “Trace’s” original showing: The text biographies for those portrayed were updated in April, based on the latest information about the subjects. But late-breaking news about Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a writer sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison on subversion charges (and not allowed to collect his Nobel Prize), occurred after those bio rewrites: He was recently released from jail and hospitalized, suffering from what was reported to be late-stage cancer.

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Trace” is not merely (in Kennicott’s words) “preaching to the choir members, …rubbing their shoulders and whispering affirmation in their ears: We care about injustice.” In its new site—a federally funded museum, under the noses of members of Congress and the Trump administration—it could further inflame the Culture Wars, just when the debate over government arts funding is coming to a head. I can already imagine the derisive slogan (using one of Trump’s favorite words, which rhymes with “Trace”).

As shown in my CultureGrrl Video of the Alcatraz installations, Ai’s piece commingles civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. and exiled Edward Snowden (regarded as a conscientious objector by some, but as a traitor by others) in its pantheon of six U.S. dissidents.

Will conservative political leaders in Washington see Ai’s oppressed objectors and political prisoners as belonging to the tradition of our own Founding Fathers, whose righteous rebelliousness we’ll be celebrating with fireworks this Tuesday? Don’t bet on it.

Screenshot from my CultureGrrl Video

Below is the press image released by the Hirshhorn of the segment of “Trace” where Snowden’s portrait appears (in the upper left corner). The image is discreetly cropped so you can only see the left portion of Snowden’s face and none of his name. King’s portrait is the yellow and red square in the top center:

Photo by Cathy Carver

You don’t need a long memory to have traumatic flashbacks about the fallout from the controversial Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which engendered a problematic proposal to seek advance public input regarding Smithsonian exhibitions flagged as potentially inflammatory. In my Huffington Post piece at the time of that flare-up, I cited previous instances of hot-button shows at federal institutions (the Library of Congress and the National Air and Space Museum) that had triggered powerful backlash.

Here are the misgivings I then expressed:

What I’m trying delicately to suggest is that federal institutions may not be the most appropriate venues for highly provocative or likely-to-offend takes on emotionally charged subjects. The likelihood of goading conservative politicians into cracking down on the arts more broadly makes such undertakings in D.C. uniquely risky.

That risk, it seems to me, is even greater today. I hope that I’m being overly skittish and that the Hirshhorn show will have an untroubled run. But both Hirshhorn director Chiu and Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton (formerly president of Cornell University) are relative newcomers to institutions in our nation’s capital, and I wonder if they fully understand the risks they have assumed in mounting a politically charged show in these toxic times.

The Hirshhorn presented a generous sampling of Ai’s work in its 2012 retrospective, Ai Weiwei: According to What? But that show bypassed American politics, focusing on the Chinese government’s repression and misdeeds. As I previously wrote, the earlier Hirshhorn show “fell surprisingly flat, with a disjointed and lifeless installation.”

Ai was unable to leave China to attend that one, but he was enthusiastically on hand for the opening of the current exhibition, as you can see in this NPR video:

Secretary Skorton, in the press release announcing the current Hirshhorn display, expressed his unequivocal support for it:

The Hirshhorn is breaking new ground, engaging people of all ages in enormously creative ways. The recent Kusama exhibition, along with the premiere of this Ai Weiwei installation, are perfect examples of what we have come to expect from the Hirshhorn under the leadership of Melissa Chiu.

Maybe so, but those two shows aren’t comparable: Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors aim to please. Ai’s “Trace” aims to provoke. On May 6, the artist published a NY Times opinion piece about censorship in China that had a telling context: It was excerpted from a new book of essays by an international roster of writers, titled Rules for Resistance: Advice from Around the Globe in the Age of Trump.

The United States, it seems, may now be in the sights of this world-famous advocate for resistance.

Portrait of Ai Weiwei
Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

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