China's artist/activist Ai Weiwei works on exhibit in D.C. museums

WASHINGTON — If your concept of Chinese art is delicately painted screens and fragile porcelain cups, prepare for your world to be upended on a visit to Washington, D.C.

This month, Ai Weiwei, the prolific Chinese artist and political activist, will have two shows on display, and a huge 40-piece retrospective of his work is coming in October.

Starting Saturday at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler museum is an exhibit of his “Fragments” sculpture, while down Independence Avenue outdoors at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is “Zodiac Heads.” Both exhibits leave in 2013.

In “Fragments” a delicate network of ancient ironwood beams are connected by pegs chunked into place by mallets, making the very heavy wood almost dance.

Much of the wood came from south China, where “a great deal of development (is) taking place but also a great deal of urban change taking place, hence perhaps the abundance of this kind of wood,” says Carol Huh, assistant curator of Contemporary Asian Art at the Sackler.

The wood is from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples and homes that were destroyed with the rapid urbanization of China in the last 20 years. Many of the beams still retain their hand-carved decorated carvings.

She says that Ai Weiwei collected the wood from antique dealers who were selling them in markets. “He’s taken something from a temple structure, that then became fragments of wood to be sold in the market, and transformed it to an art object to be shown in the museum.”

Further down the National Mall, Weiwei’s “Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals” is on display outside at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Bronze sculptures of the heads of 12 Chinese Zodiac animals — rooster, snake, horse, ram, monkey, dog pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit and dragon — are set on 10-foot-tall stalks, cast to evoke lotus roots, surround the museum’s fountain.

The sculptures are based on the original set for the Qianlong emperor (1735-1796) by Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit missionary. Originally, the fountain was installed in the Yuan Ming Yuan, or Old Summer Palace, outside Beijing and spouted water as the sun passed over each animal.

In 1860, the Summer Palace was invaded by British and French forces during the second Opium War. Five of the sculptures were destroyed and the other seven scattered. The rat and the rabbit originals came up for auction in 2009 but the sale became controversial, and, in the end, the sculptures were retained by the owner in France.

For his “Circle of Animals,” Ai Weiwei created out of his imagination the dragon, the ram, the snake, the dog, and the rooster since they were destroyed in 1860.

“The rest are based on the original Qing dynasty carvings. The dragon and the tiger — there is a huge amount of dynamism — he (Weiwei) was thinking of water, as if they were rising out of the water,” says Mika Yoshitake, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn. “You can see it in the tufts of the tiger as well as the feathery parts of the dragon.”

The museum has aligned them with the compass — the first animal of the Zodiac, the rat, is north, the rooster west, the horse the south, the rabbit, the east.

“Fragments” has already garnered one review from the public. A trio of museum visitors, including a young boy, paused for a second at the installation. His unsolicited comment? “That’s cool!”


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