The Hirshhorn Museum’s “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is the most highly anticipated exhibit to come to Washington in years. The show is a collaboration with Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, where much of this work was shown first; it follows another collaboration with the Mori on the 2006 retrospective of Hiroshi Sugimoto, a partnership that the Hirshhorn’s chief curator, Kerry Brougher, has said made this Washington exhibit of Ai’s work possible. Its development began before Ai’s name rocketed into the headlines when he was incarcerated by Chinese authorities without explanation in 2011. But given the artist’s unusual celebrity and given the source of it, “According to What?” has special resonance. How audiences will view it has a lot to do with the state of relations between Washington and Beijing, and between Beijing and Ai.

Because of that context—and because the artist remains in China, his passport revoked—Ai and Washington turns out to be a surprisingly muted affair. It is a first-rate sculpture exhibit, one that lets the artist’s work stand without a sea of explanatory text. Photographs tell Ai’s life story, from 98 snapshots taken during his decade in New York (1983–1993) to several dozen photos of his life in Beijing. Otherwise, there is little of the explanatory, biographical text that often glues together a retrospective of an artist of Ai’s stature. The Hirshhorn appears to have identified a quiet grace in Ai’s work and built an exhibit to suit. The only problem with this approach—one that, certainly, has resulted in a surpassingly elegant exhibition—is that it ignores the artist’s serious penchant for cacophony, which has earned him legions of fans across the world as well as the enmity of the Chinese government.

The quality of the work in “According to What?”—Ai’s first North American retrospective—can’t be overstated. There is nothing here to rival Ai’s 2010 masterpiece for the Tate Modern, an exhibit of 100 million life-size, hand-crafted, porcelain sunflower seeds. But the same touch is present in “He Xie,” an installation of 3,200 porcelain crabs. Presented in a large circular pile, every one is a precious object, yet they are all virtually indistinguishable. A good deal of Ai’s sculpture plays on the contrast between common subject and precious material, including, at the Hirshhorn, marble sculptures of a hardhat and a security camera. (Two things common in Ai’s life, anyway.)

The Hirshhorn might have been built for this exhibit. The scale of the works suits the museum throughout, from the gorgeous “Teahouse,” an installation of improbable house-like structures, to the harsh and minimal “Straight,” an installation of 38 tons of steel rebar. Even “Forever,” a ring of interlocking bicycle frames, fits in the more social space of the museum’s lobby, where art almost never feels at home.

Not every presentation decision works. One of the museum’s first galleries features two spheroid sculptures, “Divina Proportione” (2006) and “F Size” (2011), both made of huali wood, a favorite Qing dynasty building material. The sculptures take the form of truncated icosahedrons—or Buckyballs, the molecular configuration named after architect Buckminster Fuller, who popularized the geodesic dome. (They kind of look like hollow soccer balls.) Along the floors and walls, the Hirshhorn has mounted dozens of photographic prints of Ai’s most famous work: Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium, which the artist designed with the boutique architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron.

That’s a work that Ai might rather put behind him. Ai denounced the Bird’s Nest stadium and boycotted the Olympics, condemning them as a state tool after authorities pursued a policy of forced relocation to make way for the games. But the connection between the prints and spheres is reasonable enough: In Beijing, Ai runs a small architectural firm, FAKE Design, which has completed projects in Jinhua and Beijing. He would be aware of Fuller’s many contributions to the form and language of architecture; in this gallery, the Hirshhorn has made that connection tangible, if way too busy.

What’s less clear is why Chinese authorities made the decision just this month to shut down FAKE, citing the firm’s failure to reregister for its business license. Nor does the exhibit demonstrate why the state has dogged Ai with charges ranging from tax evasion to bigamy after officials released him from 81 days’ detention in 2011. It doesn’t really explain why the state disappeared him in the first place.

That explanation, and the show, begins with Sichuan province. Following the devastating 2008 earthquake, Ai worked to collect and catalog information suppressed by Chinese authorities on the number of victims who were schoolchildren. Schools across Sichuan didn’t meet reasonable building codes, and many of the schoolchildren who died that day might have survived were it not for shoddy construction. Along the wall of the Hirshhorn, Ai has presented the name, birth year, gender, and class grade for each of more than 5,000 students killed, a visual frame that only hints at the rote work of research, visits, and other methods employed by Ai and his assistants.

It is one thing to find out such information. And it is another thing to create a work such as “Snake Ceiling,” a serpentine sculpture comprising hundreds of interlocking backpacks of various sizes, to represent the uniformity and anonymity of the tragedy, the victims’ story suppressed by the state. But it is another thing altogether to publish this information online—and it is this component of Ai’s practice that has earned him a sharp rebuke from China.

Missing entirely from the Hirshhorn exhibit is Twitter, an ineluctable part of Ai’s output. Four prints in the show illustrate why it’s incomplete without some Twitter frame. In two of them, Ai holds the camera as he flicks off his subject—in one, the White House, in the other, Tiananmen Square. Another photo shows Ai holding up his cell phone to flash a selfie in the mirrored wall of an elevator, as he’s being detained by Chinese police. And another shows brain scans highlighting the brain damage he received as a consequence of police brutality.

None of these pictures is a photograph, strictly speaking: They’re tweets. The Hirshhorn’s translation of one medium into another, from cell-phone snaps to blown-up prints, is an unnecessary step that elides an important part of Ai’s practice, akin to reprinting and framing an Andy Warhol polaroid. Given a hell of a quandary—how to present Ai’s sober, monumental sculpture alongside the frenzy of his Twitter feed—the museum appears to have decided to adapt the latter to fit the former. One video installation on view, “258 Fake,” is essentially a slideshow of nearly 8,000 digital images by Ai. The piece, first presented by Galerie Urs Meile, isn’t something that anyone could expect viewers to spend much time with. Yet every viewer has access to his Twitter feed—even his English-speaking audience. (Which may be the larger share of his fans, though the small sliver of Chinese people aware of Ai’s work is still a vast number.) His last tweet at press time is a typically poetic exchange with a follower: “Let him go bankrupt first. RT @inkfisherman: I want to know how I can lend money to Teacher Ai.”

It may be an impossible task to translate Twitter to a museum exhibition: Interactive kiosks or any other education-driven plinths would ruin the show. But there’s another, more charged, potentially more disruptive reading of the Hirshhorn’s decisions for a lo-fi, lo-tech presentation. Perhaps its curators believe that Ai’s artworks, his physical sculptures, are the more dangerous part of what he does.

“Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”

It’s a tempting thought, and his works are certainly subversive enough. For “Coca-Cola Vase,” Ai painted “Coca-Cola” in that company’s familiar script using silver paint on a Neolithic vase. Such works have uncanny economy to them: They borrow from the most recognized forms from ancient tradition and upbraid them with the most recognized brand of the modern condition. No fan of Warhol’s could be shocked by the commercial sentiment, but Ai’s piece is about policy: He’s condemning a China that is quite literally paving over its history, tearing down ancient temples to build the future of the 21st century. And in a show that includes “Cube Light,” a spectacular cosmic-cube sculpture (and new Hirshhorn acquisition) that is certain to be a visitor favorite, the best vista includes both an arrangement of painted Han dynasty vases and a triptych of photos showing Ai as he drops one to the ground.

“House arrest, travel restrictions, surveillance, stopping phone service, cutting internet connection, what we can still do is to greet the crazy motherland once again,” read one highly retweeted dispatch from Ai in 2010. Compared with speech that the entire world recognizes as political agitas, what mark can a sculpture like “He Xie”—whose title is a pun on the Chinese slang term for online political censorship—truly hope to make? The Hirshhorn makes the case for it. Ai may delight in repetition, whether comically in the creation of several thousand crabs or darkly in the reading of several thousand dead schoolchildren’s names, but the Hirshhorn gives every work singular weight. There is just enough of Ai’s work on view to demonstrate the artist’s acuity, his authority, and his apparent relentlessness—and just enough to leave viewers curious.

The Hirshhorn has focused on a quiet Ai—one whose focus is on craftsmanship, as demonstrated by works such as 2005’s “China Log” and 2008’s “Map of China.” Made from iron wood from Qing dynasty temples dismantled as a result of China’s heedless industrialization, these sculptures demonstrate Ai’s adherence to craftsmanship and affection for China. Should Chinese authorities be so focused on his Internet presence, where he is another voice of billions? Arguably, it’s the Hirshhorn’s Ai—the conservative subversive revealed as being fiercely dedicated to tradition, family, transparency, and craft—who poses a greater threat to an authoritarian state.