Although it was freezing cold wandering the streets in Georgetown, one cannot help but be inspired by Washington, obvious in its fantastic architecture, cobbled streets, parks and historical sites. Best of all for me were the free museums on the Mall. At least the city’s poor have access to the cultural benefits, not worrying that the cost might mean less food, clothes or necessities for families. In Toronto, the AGO, Aga Khan, Science Centre and even the ROM preclude a wander after 4 pm when most parents are struggling after a long day’s work, contemplating what’s for supper or how to get the kids to do their homework. It certainly drives me crazy that the advantages of dawdling in a gallery is not available because of the prohibitive price point.
In Washington, we asked taxi cab drivers if they had noticed a change since Trump had become president, an incomprehensible affront to this great city. Most only volunteered that it was more expensive to live and work there now. So fortunately- so far- these institutions of culture and learning are still possible retreats for anyone who chooses. And in deed the fabulous newly opened National African- American Museum of Culture and History was filled with families, sitting, chatting and viewing the powerful exhibitions.
Interestingly at the Hirschhorn Museum, we were able to view Ai Weiwei’s “Trace, “an exhibition of 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience, activists and dissenters. Constructed by hundreds of volunteers in Lego bricks, the entire installation was originally housed at Alcatraz Prisoner in their New Industries Building where prisoners once worked washing off-shore laundry and making cargo nets for the navy, among other jobs for a few cents per hour or timeoff their sentences.
So, unlike Washington’s solo presentation of “Trace”, Alcatraz’s the first room of the installation at Alcatraz housed “With Wind” which contained an enormous colourful and traditional flying Chinese dragon. Formed from smaller kites, the airy sculpture loomed from the ceiling, filling the enormous space. As well, scattered throughout the room were representations of birds and flowers. Contradictions between the freedom of the art and the building that was once used for prison labor and now hosts a bird habitat are obvious. In an adjacent room “Trace” was shown. And finally, the third part of the exhibit “Refaction” was constructed to be peered at through windows.Here Weiwei located a huge wing spread structure resembling an enormous truncated bird, feathers replaced with reflective metal panels originally used on Tibetan solar cookers.
This reminded me of British Columbia’s Brian Jungen’s work in which he arranges golf bags, broken plastic chairs ,Nike running shoes and contemporary items to suggest the sacred elements of Canada’s native peoples. Like Jungen, Weiwei highlights cultures that have been used and abused by governments, and in the actual Weiwei location for ” Trace”, the impact of capitalism and slave labor to produce goods, all addressing concerns of freedom and the loss thereof.The scale of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, the island itself being 22 miles ,has detained everyone from the Hopi to Al Capone to “hard-case” military prisoners; therefore, because of the prison’s mammoth size , it is no surprise that the Hirschhorn is representing only a segment of the entire production.
Yet, the Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott has criticized the exhibit saying it was “ blunt and provocative”, also suggesting it could be taken in at a glance.At the Hirschhorn’s entrance is a wall of decorative design, actually wallpaper, that could easily be a print for a Hermes scarf as the clarity of objects and even the bronze colour scheme appear well drawn, nicely laid out , and well! pretty. Looking closer, the viewer recognizes these depicted symbols are instruments of oppression such as observation cameras and handcuffs that in Weiwei’s hands are refigured, overlapped and lose their menacing intent as restricting forces by authoritarian governments.The repetitive recognizable bird in the wallpaper is symbolized by the Tweet, and evenly interspersed with these other means of repression, making clear that Weiwei’s active protests, is his voice in his tweets : impossible to ignore worldwide. And much like Marcel Duchamp in 1917, his “Readymades”, in particular the urinal or “ Fountain” focus on ordinary objects that have been liberated from their commonplace surroundings, changing and neutralizing their impact on the audience, here isolating the intrusive objects that spy and pry, removing their claws. The Surrealists knew that dislocating an object from its home context did just that: rendering the ordinary extraordinary and altering the intent and purpose of the object.
Yet walking through the rooms of the Hirschhorn, if form, function and content can combine, they do so here, for the simple Lego brick, ubiquitous, stands for outrage all over the world, of the abrogation of human rights, straight forward, simple. It is not a message that requires much unpacking. The process of identifying the prisoners took six months and each Lego portrait required about 10,000 blocks, the design process also complicated by Weiwei’s being detained in China.And although one might walk through the installation in a half hour or so, the faces not realistic are the purposely blurred images associated with subjugation, mugshots for dossiers.
The grandmothers who marched daily for the release of their children and grandchildren in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo also stood as a crowd of indistinguishable faces too, chanting with one demand. Here Weiwei gives these people in the “Trace” Lego portraits , most names previously unknown, voice. In the Alcatraz catalogue, @ Aiweialcatraz, Weiwei comments on the relationship of the individual to the collective, one person subsumed by their community, long championed by the Chinese. And so, whether in captivity or freedom, the artistic knife cuts both ways, attesting to the need for global support for the individual, and the importance of putting a single name, a separate portrait to the community of dissidents presented here who are hidden, locked away, banished or disappeared forever. The intent of the installation exhorts and communicates the importance of communicating this message to both individuals and groups, by twitter, exhibitions, social media, whatever in order to change , stop and shut down suppressive act by authoritarian governments , their spies and agencies.
I’m sensitive to Kennicott’s criticism as I think of flashing neon art by Tracy Emin, or most art that is perceived at an obvious level, but deeper analyses engages the mind further. For example Sol Le Wit, Judy Chicago, or even Rothko’s tonal paintings. As well the 48,000 handmade pieces that comprised the Aids Memorial Quilt or All Hands on Deck by activists Davis and Scolnik are stark and forthright, the message uncomplicated as art is used as protest for societal issues.That “Trace” was originally shown “ “With Wind” and “Refaction” at Alcatraz does bolster the metaphor and makes for more interesting connections to the realms of the artistic and aesthetic And similarly, Soleil Levant, Weiwei’s exhibit of 3500 salvaged life jackets of the 8,000 refuges who died or disappeared en route to the Greek Island of Lesbos speaks to the human desire to be free, the dangerous failed attempts and inclement sanctuaries. This exhibit observable from the street in Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Harbour was mounted for World Refugee day, and “Trace” continues to maintain dialogues that revolve around and are centred on loss and deprivation of human rights.The purpose is- after all- to commandeer art to attack, protest and change attitudes.
From this blog entry, it is obvious how charged I felt about Weiwei and Kennicott’s criticism. Above all, a backdrop of fantastic Washington with its strange president felt an affront to artistic sensibilities. But, in spite of the critic’s right to express his personal views,and exert his freedom of speech, at least art of protest can be displayed and shown here, even inhabiting a federal penitentiary ! Perhaps small comfort to those incarcerated around the world, but an acknowledgement of the struggle that has cost lives and an active attempt to put pressure on governments to respond. Thanks too to Amnesty International who compiled the list to Weiwei that continues to be the world’s watchdog.
But even in ” Trace”, we witness disparities, for Aung San Suu Kyi is memorialized as an advocate of human rights ( portrait created before the world knew of the Rohingya deportation) along side Nelson Mandela, Rwanda’s Agnes Uwimana Nkusi who alleged corruption in the 2010 election, Omid Kokanee , 2014 Sakharov Prize winner, whose family was threatened unless he contribute to Iran’s development of Nuclear program….and so many many more….
And I think of the interview in Washington with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who commented on her lifelong friendship with now passed Anthony Scalia, explaining they were working towards the same objective, withholding the constitution, different views but one purpose.
At least , the children of Washington are free to look and think and enter museums and cultural institutions and reflect on the stories, the history and narratives compiled by artists like Weiwei whose protests sprouted long long ago, providing artists a means to counter the workings of their systems that would strip the rights and freedoms of citizens worldwide.
From an interview with Douglas Gillies, December, 1994, he quoted Diogenes who said,
“The most beautiful thing in the world is free speech.”Gilles continued,”…for me, free speech is not a tactic, not something to win for political…free speech something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is….that’s what marks us from the stones and the stars…It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”