Life Cycles is an art installation by Ai WeiWei which explores the
global refugee crisis, at Marciano Art Foundation, in a gigantic room at
the old Masonic Temple on Wilshire. I went to see it with artist Linda
Haim and East Asia scholar John Solt. Before reaching the main
installation, we walked through an expansive room with a field of what
appeared to be sunflower seeds made out of porcelain next to a field
of teacup spouts. Hanging from extremely high ceilings in the main
room were very large-scale bamboo sculptures with light casting their
shadows on the ceiling and on the walls. Taking up the floor of the
room was a gigantic boat, also fashioned out of bamboo. Numerous
bamboo figures representing global refugees on the high seas were
seated inside with creatures from the Chinese zodiac interspersed
among them. Suspended on the wall were Chinese mythic figures
crafted out of bamboo and silk by Chinese kite-makers based on Ai
WeiWei’s designs. On the low base that the huge boat was mounted
upon were epigrammatic citations from thinkers ranging from St.
Augustine to Franz Kafka, each one bringing into focus a facet of the
ethical core of the refuge question in this era. One of the most striking
quotes was from Zadie Smith:

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the
fears of the nationalist, scared of infection,
penetration, miscegenation, when this is small
fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant
fears—dissolution, disappearance.

Filled with a feeling of consciousness expanded from being within the
spatial dimensions of this expansive room and absorbing Ai WeiWei’s
larger-than-life mixed-media art, as well as the temporal dimensionality
of archetypal mythic figures transposed onto situations and conditions
of present-day world crises, we drove over to the Deitch Gallery in
Hollywood. There we viewed Zodiac, an installation in a large
warehouse among the sound stages above Willoughby. As we
crossed La Brea, I mentioned to Linda and John that this was where I’
d had a schoolboy paper-route delivering the Hollywood Citizen News
well over half a century earlier. The gallery was nowhere near as
cavernous as the old Masonic Temple, but it was extremely large. The
center of the floor consisted of an art installation titled
Stools (2013), a
solid mass of nearly six thousand wooden stools from the fourteenth
to eighteenth centuries. We agreed that manufactured stools would
not possess the same aura of lived experience only derived from the
touch of a workman’s hand. The most provocative and impressive
piece was on the far wall in the form of wallpaper depicting in old-
fashioned decorative style images which turned out to be surveillance
cameras, handcuffs and other dystopian objects documenting the
artist’s incarceration and house arrest in China

One week later, Linda and I went to UTA Artist Space in Beverly Hills
to see the third Ai WeiWei installation:
entered the gallery from the street, there were six sculptures in a room
to the side, each under glass. Among the most striking were three
porcelain plates which appeared to be from a distant dynastic era. It
became clear upon closer inspection that, juxtaposed with historical
Chinese images, were war-torn village scenes with helicopters.
Refugees were on the move, their belongings on their backs. The
elaborately filigreed wallpaper in this room appeared at first to be
ancient wall drawings on traditional themes, but, interspersed among
them were lines of refugees along with refugee camps, tent cities,
banners that said
ravaged cityscapes along with helicopters, soldiers with guns pointing
in the same direction and other soldiers throwing tear gas grenades.   

CAO, the title piece, in the center of the main room, is a field of marble
blades of grass. The point made in the gallery brochure was that
grass is trod upon like the refugees and other stateless wanderers,
rejected by authoritarian nations where they seek asylum that are the
primary theme of the installation. A week later, John Solt related to me
that he had been at the gallery some days earlier and overheard a
gallery staff person relating this interpretation to two women who were
prospective buyers. He recounted to me that he walked over and
interjected that another interpretation based on the bodhisattva’s vow
not to attain enlightenment until every sentient being down to the
lowliest blade of grass had been enlightened, could be an operative
principle. As I gazed at the field of marble clumps of grass, I
immediately grasped the Whitmanic intent of the artist, whether
deliberate or not. Just as Walt Whitman, in
Leaves of Grass,
propagated the transcendentalist concept of each blade of grass
being individual yet connected to others by an elaborate root system
beneath the surface, not visible to the eye, Ai WeiWei’s blades of
grass, sculpted out of marble, appeared to me to carry a parallel
meaning. Yet to comprehend Ai WeiWei’s morphing of this vision, it is
necessary to ask what Whitman’s 19th century concept of the person,
individual yet connected to others and to the world, is worth in this
21st surveillance century with refugees turned away at borders and
fascism on the rise with its predatory aggression?

Even beyond Ai WeiWei’s reification of Whitman’s leaves of grass is
the temporal scope of his concept. The ancient Chinese techniques
and styles applied in his works, along with what at first appears to be
historic, traditional imagery, is juxtaposed with the present situation of
stateless persons seeking refuge in authoritarian surveillance states
that turn them away. It is a Brechtian epic concept that makes it
possible to view the world of the past from the present moment and
simultaneously view human situations in the present as if from a
vantage point in the future.  
Art installations by Ai WeiWei in three Los Angeles galleries in 2018/19
Uri Hertz
Photos: John Solt  &  Linda Haim
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