Traces of Ai Weiwei’s politics at the Skirball Cultural Center.
âAi Weiwei: Traceâ at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles presents three of the six floor panels that Ai Weiwei created in 2014 for an in situ exhibition in San Francisco on Alcatraz Island regarding prisoners of conscience, political prisoners and persons subjected to illegal detention and, in some cases, torture. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Washington DC subsequently acquired the panels and, in turn, made the exhibit available to the Skirball. The exhibit is now on view at Skirball from May 15 to August 1, 2021 (Check their website for new ticketing guidelines and security protocols related to Covid).
At Skirball, the three panels are housed in the giant 8,000-square-foot column-less pavilion that most often houses their temporary or traveling exhibitions. They are on the ground and each panel contains images of more than a dozen people, all rendered in LEGOÂ® bricks. Yes, you read that right, LEGOÂ®.
It was intentional. Weiwei was inspired by his then young son who played with LEGOÂ® and at the same time believed that some of the pixelated images could be rendered well in LEGOÂ®.
In 2014, when the Chinese government placed Weiwei under house arrest, it designed this work. Weiwei worked with Amnesty International to nominate candidates. Some of the work was assembled in Ai Weiwei’s workshop, others by some 80 workers in San Francisco. In 2017, before being exhibited at the Hirshhorn, it was updated.
Let’s start by saying that Ai Weiwei is a prodigious artist whose work embraces all mediums and is often conceptual in nature. Its stature is global and its success enormous. His commitment as an artist to express himself, to challenge the piety of art and to defend the rights of all artists and their freedom of expression is as remarkable as it is laudable.
It must also be said that there is great artistry in the myriad of ways the different portraits are rendered in LEGOÂ®. and how shadows and bone structure are conveyed with different colors; and how in some the background colors seem to make an even bigger statement than the person. Each portrait has the person’s name displayed, but they are done in different ways. Some look like a postage stamp, some look like an album cover, and still others look like an image from the web.
The exhibition is surrounded on three walls by a wallpaper created by Ai Weiwei, titled The animal that looks like a llama but is actually an alpaca. It’s a shiny gold and repeating patterns that resemble a garish, decorative and opulent Versace design. A closer look reveals that the motives are clusters of surveillance cameras, handcuffs and the Twitter Bird symbol encased (or you could say imprisoned) in gold as well as hidden alpacas. I found this intelligent and appreciated.
The Skirball tried to give context to the work by providing a mobile guide that tells the stories of each individual depicted in the gallery, as well as commentary from Weiwei and curator Yael Lipschutz.
Nonetheless, overall, as a work of art, I was left out by Trace. While I admire Weiwei, I don’t find all of his works so successful – in some, as is the case with Trace – concept and content stand out as more important than execution. Here, the three carpets are separated throughout the large gallery without columns. They sit, by design, on the ground and you walk around to see all the faces presented. The collection of various faces is grouped together in no order or direction given, and without any significance for the different styles of representation or the size of the various portraits. They are flat in every sense of the word.
Weiwei said, âEverything is Art. Everything is political. Quite true. But sometimes the politics of a piece can override the importance of the piece as a work of art. And it is not because a piece is political that the institution exhibiting it does not approve of all aspects or opinions expressed by the artist. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to address some of the questionable policies of Trace’s content and its exposure to Skirball.
Not to stir the pot or throw shade butâ¦ as the Skirball probably knowsâ¦ Amnesty International, on whom Weiwei relied to choose his subjects, although an organization which did important and necessary work, has also been disproportionately critical of Israel, then to such an extent that the imbalance has been repeatedly highlighted.
Beyond that, there is a kind of moral equivalence between the people portrayed that bothered me, as if they were all equally victimized and governments that are presented as their oppressors are also guilty of their oppression. As a generalized class, it may be true to say that all imprisonment or banishment is bad, but they are not all equal. Nelson Mandela’s treatment was not the same as that of Chelsea Manning, nor that of Martin Luther King that of Edward Snowden. The treatment of Azam Formonov, who was tortured and imprisoned for nearly twelve years in Uzbekistan, is not the same as that of Vietnamese Labor activist Do Minh hahn. Neither better nor worse but not equal. Likewise, Aung Sung Kee is among those depicted, and yes, she was for many years a prisoner of conscience in her native Myanmar, but today she is part of the political establishment involved in the Rohingya massacres. . It’s complicated and the Skirball does little to point it out.
I have no idea how and why some panels got to the Skirball and others didn’t. The Skirball presents 83 of the 176 original portraits of the work. However, among the totality of the prisoners on the original panels, there were several Iranians who were jailed as “spies for Israel” – and I am surprised that they do not appear in the current exhibit as they would certainly be from interest in the Iranian and Jewish community in Los Angeles. I find such an omission puzzling.
It is interesting to note that this exhibit, which is in no way explicitly Jewish, nor even culturally Jewish in the manner of recent exhibits on Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center – which is a Jewish Cultural institution.
It is probably no coincidence that this is the first Skirball exhibit since its leadership passed from founding impresario Uri Herscher, a rabbi, to Jessie Kornberg, a former lawyer for the NAACP, NOW, and most recently CEO of Bet Tzedek, a Los Angeles-based company. non-profit organization based on providing free legal services to low-income people, whose motto is âJustice for allâ.
This is how Kornberg presents the exhibit in the Skirball press release: âLike Ai Weiwei, the individuals of Trace have been incarcerated or exiled for their beliefs and activismâ¦ We are honored to present this monumental work, which, through a disarming medium game, examines courage and conscience in the face of authoritarianism and challenges us to re-engage in the work of safeguarding our most fundamental democratic ideals. Kornberg describes the exhibit as a “particularly poignant representation of the most extreme deprivations of liberty and security,” adding that “The Skirball has always sought to provide a place of safety and sanctuary for our visitors, believing that a sense of hospitality is the key to freedom of expression and democratic life.
A closer look at the Skirball website lists its mission as rooted in six core Jewish values: welcoming the stranger, honoring memory, seeking learning, seeking justice, building community, and showing kindness.
Not that there is anything wrong with it. As has been well documented, for an overwhelming number of American Jews, social justice is tied to their Jewish identity. There is still something disturbing about Jewish values ââwithout Jews. Personally, I think doubling the uniqueness of the Jewish artistic and cultural experience is a better long term strategy for a Jewish cultural center than being an institution of Jewish values. But this is not my choice to make (certainly no one asked me for my opinion) and I could well be wrong. At the moment, I’m just happy the Skirball is reopening at all.
After a year of pandemic containment, there may be justice in reopening Skirball with a show about political prisoners by an international art luminary. And, perhaps, aside from my art criticism and political criticism, it’s worth celebrating that the Skirball Cultural Center, under new management, is redefining itself for a new era.