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The conversation about Ai Weiwei has focused much more on his person than on his art, in part because few of his many fans in the West have ever seen the latter. That doesn’t matter, in a sense. Ai is the heir apparent to American artist Bruce Nauman, a cowboy conceptualist whose work has pushed the boundaries of the possible in a number of ways since his emergence in the 1970s. Ai shares Nauman’s sense of humor, which churns from bitter to butter, depending on the work: He’s given the finger to Tiananmen Square and taken naked self-portraits. His small audiences in China receive his trickster art in different ways: His fans on China’s Twitter call him “Uncle” or “Teacher,” while Beijing authorities call him a tax evader and pornographer. His audiences in the United States greet him almost universally as a hero, or at least as sympathetic—yet his art typifies so many strategies that museumgoers say they don’t love: The gesture as the artwork, the documentation as the object, the thought as the thing.
The narrative themes that Ai’s work tackles are often beyond many viewers’ ken. For example, the two works up in Washington today—sculptural installations at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Freer and Sackler Galleries erected in advance of his big retrospective at the Hirshhorn—delve deeply into the architectural trajectory of a rapidly industrializing China, a subject dear to Ai’s heart.
What makes Ai important to his large audience abroad is the way his person, all by itself, speaks to freedom. He has been imprisoned by authorities for his beliefs, and that is enough to make him a celebrity, a cause important to both Wall Street Journal–reading conservatives and New Republic-toting liberals. The thing that might surprise all of them is the liberties he takes with his art. “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” will in all likelihood reveal an Ai whose works breaks with every cherished hardworking American belief about artmaking and creativity even while he is greeted as the standardbearer for Western virtue in the East.