Stone-Cold Ineffable: Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

June 21st, 2013  |  Published in *, June 2013  |  1 Comment

Stone-Cold Ineffable: Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

By Keith Banner

Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?” (currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through July 17, 2013) is pure perfection. An Apple-Store consumerist clarity defines and propels the whole enterprise, a clean, polished fetishism that somehow becomes spiritual in its carefulness. Weiwei is obviously a purist, a craftsman, and a genius, but a humble undercurrent gives “According to What?” a quiet sense of authority and grace, as if Weiwei has found a new way to merge art and life without losing the sense of preciousness and danger inherent in both.  Weiwei’s now famous back-story is told in the course of the exhibit, of course, because it has to be. He’s currently unable to leave China because of who he is and what he’s done as an activist and political prisoner. However, that biography of activism and humanitarianism is not the biography Weiwei seems to want us to focus on. In corresponding interviews and quotes throughout the show, he tries to reconfigure, even apologize for, his activism, for the sake of having people see and think about his art without the gloss and crutches of heroism.

Straight (2008 – 2012),” appropriated rebar installation.


It’s the objects he makes that transcend biography and sanctity and even thought. They are inscrutable, cosmic, and just plain flat out gorgeous. The prime example is “Straight (2008 – 2012),” a flourish of flattened rusty rebar that spans most of one side of the immense two-room IMA galleries. The exposition to this industrial yet plush installation is horrendous: hundreds of Chinese school-children were killed in a 2008 earthquake. The school buildings the children were in were made on the cheap, increasing the death toll. The Chinese government has tried to cover up all of this, but Weiwei uses his visual intelligence as testimony and transcendence. The walls surrounding the rebar are covered in the school-children’s names, a rigorous, droll, and bureaucratic counterpart to his lyrical appropriation. The rebar used in the construction of the demolished buildings has been systemically hammered and stretched back into original longitudes. Weiwei arranges them in the gallery to mimic Seismographic readouts, ocean waves, governmental graphs, piano strings, rust-red lines of consciousness merging into amnesia.

There’s nothing you can say or do in response to what he’s accomplished here except thank him for this proverb of both profundity and disruption. When I walked around and stared at this installation I felt like I was leaving my body. Art often can’t get past itself, its own meanings and histories and languages, but here it has. Weiwei has found a way to escape aesthetics through being an aesthete. His focus provides relief from confrontation while his technique and style confront and confound. He has created a place of pilgrimage out of a place of annihilation. And in the background there’s a recorded voice saying each of the dead school-children’s names. Weiwei is not a preacher here. He is an artist giving us an image and a moment that stretch out into eternity.

“Moon Chest (2008),” huali wood sculpture.


Eternity is encapsulated in “Moon Chest (2008),” a collection of large rectangular wooden chests that span the gallery on the opposite side of “Straight.” Beautifully manufactured and elegant beyond description, “Moon Chest’s” chests remind you of the monolith in 2001: a Space Odyssey replicated and turned into a sort of static ballet. Made from huali wood, often used in Chinese furniture, and constructed with an ancient technique that uses no additional joining materials, “Moon Chest” aligns into moon phases – crescent-shaped cut-outs in each chest that depict a secret lunar calendar that spans inside and outside of itself as you walk along the parameter. It is breathtakingly strategic and stone-cold ineffable, like a game of chess unfolding from someone’s skull while you watch. You want to climb inside Weiwei’s universe when witnessing “Moon Chest.” The complicated structure creates a very simple path, an apt metaphor for Weiwei’s struggles with his country and his consciousness, which he seems to tell us without telling us are the same things. He is escaping himself by turning inward.

“Surveillance Camera (2010)” marble.


“Surveillance Camera (2010)” is also a perfect example of Weiwei’s escape from imprisonment without leaving prison, as well as an illustration of his deeply ferocious Duchampian sense of the absurd. It’s one of the simplest objects in the show, and the easiest to explain: a surveillance camera depicted in marble. The act of turning something so sinister and controlling into a sculpture that has no utilitarian value and/or State function is sublime, but also mythical – Weiwei’s artist gaze given the force and supernatural meanness of Medusa’s. In granting himself that power, he isn’t being arrogant, just sane. He is fulfilling a wish while acknowledging reality. If as Mao Zedong once wrote, “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed,” then Weiwei’s art about the politics of war, and the war inherent in politics, is proof that beyond bloodshed, and beyond politics, there is a consciousness that allows for contention and contemplation, detachment and connection. Weiwei’s art is both an answer to, and a negation of, Mao’s unmitigated Totalitarianism, his vulgarity masked as clarity, his selfish hell masked as communal Utopia. Without resorting to propaganda or hype, Weiwei finds a precise and transformative passage out of Mao’s nightmare and into a brutal, cold paradise that is unnervingly perfect and so alluring you want to stare at it till you stop seeing it, kind of like staring directly at the sun, only to discover the moon has replaced it inside your head.


  1. Kathy Holwadel says:

    June 24th, 2013at 4:35 am(#)

    From the bottom of my heart, thank-you for walking me through another I show I didn’t get a chance to attend in person. You’ve done all my thinking for me – except that as I read I wrote down key phrases: “consumerist clarity,” “sense of danger and preciousness,” “objects that transcend biography & sanctity & even thought.” -I hope that I’m not done with these and they will float across the way I look at life beyond what can be captured in museums.