Review of the Ai Weiwei “Raiz” Exhibition at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil

Running from 21 August 2019 to 4 November 2019 at Rio de Janeiro’s Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (with a smaller collection also on display at the Centro Cultural do Patrimônio Paço Imperial), the Ai Weiwei Raiz exhibition brought together a range of the artist’s works, including several created specifically for the Brazilian exhibition.

When a tree is felled, its root (“Raiz” in Portuguese) often remains buried beneath the soil. According to the Raiz exhibition’s curator, Marcello Dantas, such roots can serve as heuristic devices, allowing one to discover the shape that these departed trees assumed while they were alive.  

It is in this spirit that the work of artist Ai Weiwei is presented in Raiz: as a form of archaeology – a tool for seeking out relics lost to the soil so that one can uncover lessons from the past that have been forgotten through inattentiveness and the ephemeral nature of memory. Just as a root can help us understand the shape of a tree’s no-longer-visible trunk, art can similarly allow us to trace the contours of our own societies so that we may comprehend where we have been and where we may be heading. It is in this context – art as a tool for understanding society, an artist, and oneself – that we are advised to view the works presented in Raiz.

In line with this theme, the exhibit begins with a compelling video (A Tree, 2018), where interwoven scenes from the creative process involved in two of the exhibit’s works are juxtaposed. In the first, spectators are treated to footage filmed at a tropical forest reserve in Trancoso, Bahia (Brazil), where a crew of 11 Chinese laborers (together with assistance from a dozen local recruits) are engaged in the complete model casting of a dying Pequi tree in situ. It is an impressive undertaking, with the massive tree (31 meters high and approximately 1200 years old) completely covered in scaffolding and molding materials. In total, the project took 137 days over a production area of 428 square meters, resulting in 768 block molds weighing approximately 12.8 tons. Watching them working through the night, the viewer is struck by the interaction between the Chinese staff and this foreign environment – particularly as they become exposed to the onslaught of tropical life that springs forth with the sun’s descent. One almost imagines these workers coming from some remote village in the interior of China, seeing such a tropical environment for the first time as they are shot exiting from the van that took them to the forest reserve.

Cutting to the artist, we hear Ai identify himself as the tree being cast: both burst forth into this world with life, growing and thriving, before ultimately descending into death; transforming into compost from which future life can proceed. While associating himself with the tree, Ai simultaneously undertakes actions that personify that tree: by creating a cast of it as it approaches death, he immortalizes it in a way comparable to efforts attempted by humans to erect monuments to their own existence. When the blocks of molding are peeled away from the tree, we observe them ripping away some of its bark in the process. Juxtaposed with this are clips from the work undertaken to complete a full-body cast of Ai.[1] Here, the same fate awaits the artist: the removal of the molding rips away body hair, providing the viewer with a first-hand account of the pain caused to the artist in his attempt at creative expression. In both instances, we see that art comes at a cost: creation ultimately entails some degree of destruction.

Approximately 20 minutes had elapsed in the video, before I finally noticed the miniaturized replica of the full tree casting to my left. (I remain unclear as to where the reconstructed original currently resides). At this point, the video had started over so that, standing in front of the replica, I was fortunate enough to do so in sync with the point in the video where the viewer is first introduced to the eponymous tree. The camera pans slowly upwards from its base to the top. From my vantage point, the video and miniature casting could be viewed in tandem, allowing for a comparison of the two to be conducted as the camera ascended upwards. Impressively, the miniaturized molding seems to be a perfect reproduction (suggesting the same is true for its life-sized counterpart). It creates a sense of the surreal: to see a perfectly replicated tree memorialized indoors, able to live beyond its physical capacity through the act of artistic expression. In this act, we are treated to perhaps a second-order commentary on the current state of much of humanity, with many of us now relegated to high-rises and office buildings, far removed from the environments from which we were initially designed.

Miniature version of the tree molding

Later in the exhibition’s opening hall, we come across the piece for which the artist’s plaster-casting (depicted in the video) was used. In Two Figures (2018), Ai lays naked on a bed alongside the casting of a similarly disrobed female model (also cast in Trancoso, Bahia). In contrast to the description which places emphasis on the nakedness and its relation to the “ostensible sexuality in Brazilian culture”, I found myself drawn instead to the sense of distance and loneliness created by the noticeable space between the two sleeping figures (despite the obvious intimacy associated with sharing a bed with another person without clothing).

Stealing the viewer’s attention, however, is the bright contrast from the red hill of ormosia seeds spilling out of the male figure’s (Ai’s) head – clearly invoking imagery of a pool of blood escaping from a notable head wound. From the piece’s description, we learn that this specific seed (native to South America) conjures up cherished (and perhaps previously misplaced) memories from the artist’s youth, where he had been shown the same seeds by his father, Ai Qing, following the latter’s return from a trip to South America in 1954 to mark Pablo Neruda’s 50th birthday. Armed with the knowledge of this personal tale, the imagery of the ormosia seeds brings to mind several metaphors for the role of memory. As a representation of the process of losing memory, the similarity of the seeds to a pool of blood points to the idea that our lives are no more than the memories we hold: our death following in the wake of their escape. This in turn, draws our attention to the role of collective memories and their ability to sustain culture by forming a bridge to our past. In both cases, we see a clear link to the theme of the Raiz and the idea that art serves as a tool for understanding ourselves and cultural origins.  

In its reproduction of the act of sleep, Two Figures similarly reminds us of the murkiness that sometimes clouds our memories as well as the barriers that can hinder our ability to access them. At times, these recollections may become lost to our unconsciousness, willing only to surface in dreams under the safety of darkness. This interpretation seems to find further support in the notable distance observed between the two (ostensibly romantic) partners sharing a bed: like them, our memories may lay in close proximity to us (affecting us in ways we do not comprehend) while simultaneously seeming to reside oceans apart.

Noting as well that the model for the female figure is Brazilian, the physical distance between the two may point to a further interpretation. Brazil and China are worlds apart geographically and one could imagine a three-year-old Ai Weiwei having his own curiosity sparked upon first being presented with the ormosia seed by his father (no doubt also being treated to stories of the latter’s adventures across this magical continent). Three years of age often marks the earliest point at which any of us can recount a memory and perhaps these seeds reside among Ai’s earliest memories – giving them a prominent role in uncovering who he is today. Similarly (or alternatively), this memory may be the point where the artist is able to mark his learning of a wider world beyond China – a legendary place of people who look notably different and speak in strange tongues. Two worlds and cultures so far removed nevertheless may have found themselves married in Ai’s childhood mind, perhaps being constitutive of the man he would later become and the eventual art he would produce. In his return to Brazil and rediscovery of the ormosia seed, Ai has returned to the source of his earliest memories and the roots of who he is today (while also tracing his father’s footsteps and sharing in his experiences). However, like the social and cultural gaps inherent between men and women and Chinese and Brazilians, the distance between present and past and memory and reality can never be perfectly eliminated; we can only hope to lessen this distance in the same way that two people can share a bed and their bodies while failing to permanently meld into a single being.

Following these pieces created specifically for the Brazil exhibition, we are treated to a retrospective of Ai’s earlier works. In Bronze Arm (2000) and Finger (2015) (still in the opening hall), we find one of the artist’s recurring motifs: the artistic representation of the middle finger. Although a ubiquitous symbol for most Westerners, the striking power of the gesture is aptly conveyed by Ai, with his employment of it seeming to call into question the shock value that the symbol has come to hold in Western culture.

Forcing the [Western] viewer to then confront the middle finger with a greater degree of curiosity, the gesture can subsequently be seen – particularly in the context of Ai’s artistic journey – as the ultimate statement of individual identity: to give the finger is to unequivocally assert one’s existence. To tell someone to “fuck off” necessarily creates social distance between the offended and the offender. Because our dyadic connection to another person is, when aggregated, the basic building block of society, the act of giving the finger serves to – at least momentarily – socially detach oneself from the person it is directed at. If this person was, in turn, some bridge to wider society, the act could be seen as creating separation from all others (and, hence, society). At such an extreme, the act would create the individual in her pure form – as the proverbial lone wolf.

Viewed through this lens, it is in Ai’s confrontations with the Chinese state, however, where we find a clearer relevance for these artistic representations of the middle finger. Beyond understanding them simply as responses to great offence, we can now view these works as existential claims of individual identity, particularly in the historical context of suppression by the Chinese state. Ai is not only telling the Chinese State to “fuck off” following (arguably arbitrary) imprisonment, detention, torture, and harassment, but also claiming his existence through the very act of art.

In works such as Bronze Arm and Finger, Ai seems almost to be saying that even when his artistic supplies and physical freedom are taken away by the state, the only way to truly quiet him would be to remove his hands entirely. Such a statement takes on an added level of gravitas when one considers that – while unlikely – we could not entirely discount such a response by an authoritarian regime and that to take an artist’s hands would be to remove the tool of paramount importance to the creation of his/her art. By flagrantly flaunting the authorities with the affront of a middle finger, the artist is then exposed to great risk as it challenges the state to remove her/his hands and silence her/him completely.

Ai appears, however, to be saying that to allow his individuality to be taken from him – or by him not asserting his individuality through the gesture of giving the finger – would be equivalent to him revoking his claims on being an artist. His resistance to the state – his assumed role as a dissident – will, therefore, be his form of art: for they (dissidence and art) are two sides of the same coin for him. The loss of his hands would undermine his ability to create art and not being able to create art would, for the artist, be equivalent to death. If, however, he refuses to stand up for his ability to freely express himself, he might as well be dead since he would have lost all moral claims of calling himself an artist. He must, in other words, risk having his hand cut off for he would be removing them himself through inaction.

Greeting us in the following room is Bicycle Basket with Flowers in Porcelain (2015): a piece representing the flowers that Ai used as a form of protest against the seizure of his passport by Chinese authorities in 2011. His freedom of movement restricted, Ai subsequently engaged in a daily ritual that involved placing flowers in a bicycle basket located outside his studio until his passport was returned in 2015. What appears at first glance to be a muted form of protest, can instead be seen as quite striking when considering the cultural symbolism contained in the act.

Bicycle Basket with Flowers in Porcelain (2015)

In reference to the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” of 1956-1957 – where the Communist Party encouraged citizens to openly express opinions regarding communist rule – the flowers here may be seen as a representation of creative expression. During this campaign, Mao is famously cited as proclaiming that the policy of “letting a hundred flowers bloom and hundred schools of thought contend” (百花齐放,百家争鸣) would lead to a “flourishing of the arts and the progress of science”. Thus, by embedding his own artistic endeavors in the language of modern China’s founding father, Ai is imbuing his struggle with a strong degree of moral legitimacy while highlighting the hypocrisy of the state’s ongoing acts of censorship against him. In turn, he appears to be advancing a belief that China will only be able to move forward under an environment that truly promotes freedom of expression.

In parallel, Ai seems to be making a statement on his own personal experiences suggesting that, with his passport taken, he also cannot blossom and will eventually wilt like a flower cut from its stem. To this extent, it is additionally interesting to recall that Ai was born in 1957 (to the acclaimed poet Ai Qing). One then wonders of the extent to which Ai views his life in relation to this campaign: Was he one of the flowers that bloomed? With historical records suggesting that Mao ended the policy in the month prior to Ai’s reported month of birth (August) [2], perhaps Ai considers himself not only the result of that policy (his conception having occurred during it), but also its continuation personified.

Of further interest (though only partially presented) is the piece Panda to Panda (2015), undertaken in collaboration with the hacker Jacob Appelbaum. The tandem’s concept was to take 20 plush pandas, remove their internal stuffing and replace it with shredded copies of the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden as well as a USB stick containing an electronic back-up of the information included in the shredded documents.

Panda to Panda (2015)
Stuffed toy, printed matter, USB stick with micro-SD memory card

While these documents are from US intelligence, one can easily observe a parallel to actions taken by the Chinese state and view the shredded documents as any attempt by those in power to whitewash history of its nefarious acts at control and repression against dissidents fighting for creative expression and freedom of speech. By including the USB, however, Ai seems to be suggesting that, despite such efforts, these acts will not be forgotten. More technologically advanced than paper, the USB draws attention to those operating within and against China’s internet surveillance apparatus and how they can often be one step ahead of censors.

Such an interpretation appears to be supported by the fact that “Panda to Panda” can be used in China as a slang reference to P2P networks, which allow for information to be exchanged amidst increasing efforts at suppression. With the panda also commonly serving as a symbol of China, we may similarly understand the network of the 20 Pandas as a representation of the entirety of Chinese society. Since the plush pandas physically possess the USB stick (i.e., the memories), the Chinese authorities will not be able to erase the historical record of these acts unless they find and destroy all 20 of the pandas and the knowledge contained within. In this light, authorities would not succeed unless destroying all of society. However, in a theme found elsewhere in the Raiz exhibition, we again see the artist promoting the idea that a culture is sustained through its memories and creative expression. So, if the Chinese state were to succeed it would effectively be destroying Chinese culture.

In several instances throughout Raiz, we are presented with compelling works crafted in the form of wallpaper. In Odyssey (2016), Ai provides a commentary on the global migrant crisis that has gripped the world in recent years (with particular reference to the influx of migrants into Europe). The phases of the process are documented across horizontal strips: from war to out-migration, to detainment and further social conflict. It is wonderfully designed, in a pattern reminiscent of a ceramic vase from Ancient Greece, with the title of the piece (Odyssey) in turn referencing the great Homeric epic that serves as one of the foundational stories of Western literature. At first glance, one is even struck with how seamlessly its figures of riot police wielding shields and batons could, in passing, be taken for warriors yielding spears or swords that often adorn ancient Greek pottery.

Ancient Greek pottery

The viewer is left with a sense of the circular nature of history as well as a humbling feeling regarding the amount of progress we have made over the past several thousand years. The piece also highlights the proximity of cultural heritage shared between the West and Near East as well as the hypocrisy found in the fact that the epicenter of inhumane treatment of migrants has been occurring in the cradle of democracy and modern Western values. The geographic proximity between these Mediterranean neighbors seems, at the same time, impossibly distant when viewed through the lens of, e.g., a Syrian refugee detained in Greece. Perhaps more importantly, however, the work attempts to draw attention to the never-ending ordeal of these refugees, while making a point to highlight that the causes of these conflicts are not of their own doing, but rather imposed upon them by larger external forces.

A second wallpaper – The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca (2015) – also plays on the deception of first glances by appearing to be composed of a straightforward, harmonious pattern of golden images on a white background. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes readily apparent that this pattern is exceedingly asymmetric, with a great deal “askew” in its composition. The allegorical reference to Chinese society becomes evident: while it seems ordered and harmonious on the surface, one can find serious social contradictions residing underneath. Like the chosen color of the images depicted in the work, all that glitters is not, in fact, gold.

The patterns that make up the work are comprised of three main motifs: security cameras, birds and alpacas (with chain links and handcuffs rounding out the decorative pattern). The cameras quite obviously refer to the state’s close monitoring of its people, but, more specifically, of the artist himself. Here, the chains are clearly binding and reflective of the repressive nature of these technological devices in asserting social control. The birds, in contrast, are a reference to the Twitter corporate symbol and represent the artist’s resistance in the face of his detention and monitoring. In this case, the chains come to symbolize a contradictory phenomenon: that technology can liberate and, at the same time, links us to others in a way that allows us to escape and deter repression by the state.

Despite this affront to his personal freedom, Ai appears to be suggesting that he will not be silenced and will continue to assert his identity. This is where the figure of the alpaca comes in. In Chinese, probably the greatest vulgarity that you can direct toward another person is “Cao ni ma” (肏你妈) – which translates to what is essentially “fuck your mother”.[3] These characters, however, are written online as “caonima” (草泥马), which refers to a mythical alpaca creature that literally means “grass mud horse”. As can be seen, this change in the characters for “grass much horse” serves as a homophone for “fuck your mother”, allowing it to (at least initially) escape the heavy-hand of Chinese online censorship. Thus, in response to state repression, Ai is countering with the ultimate insult. In this act he seems to be saying: “I will not be silenced and swept under the rug. I will continue to create and comment on the ills of society. I will claim my existence. My voice will be heard. Uncensored”.

One final piece of note can be found hanging from the ceiling of the exhibition’s final room. Entitled Taifeng (2015), the work serves as a representation of the god by the same name as documented in the ancient Chinese text the Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas, 山海经), which provides an account of pre-Qin mythology (probably 4th to 1st century BCE). According to this book, Taifeng (泰逢, which translates as “peaceful-encounter”) is a god who lives in the mountain of Heshan (和山), reportedly famed for its abundance of jade and complete lack of vegetation. Holding dominion over this mountain, Taifeng resembles a human in shape but has the tail of a tiger. He is said to have the ability to harness the world’s Qi (life force) and alter the weather while emitting a powerful light wherever he goes. Those able to win his favor (cutting a ram in half and burying jade in the ground are supposed to do the trick) should expect to be blessed with good luck.

As depicted in a version of the Shan Hai Jing

Composed of bamboo and silk, Taifeng is a work created in collaboration with master kite craftsmen from Weifang, Shandong Province (which claims to be the birthplace of the kite). While these local artisans continue to construct kites using traditional techniques, Ai reportedly pushed them to move beyond these familiar approaches and into new spaces of creativity. The result is a work that relies on familiar materials (and presumptively tools), but which sees the craftspeople move out of the usual second dimension and into the third.

The creative process, materials and subject matter embodied in this work invoke an interesting set of possible interpretations. Beginning with the latter, it is noteworthy that the Shan Hai Jing (even with a very cursory review) quickly instills a profound appreciation for the imagination of its authors (unknown). Not only does the book draw up a captivating range of mythical beings (see below for examples), but it places them as actors within a universe that can be mapped in terms of geographical and social distance (see example map below).

Map of the world as based on the Shan Hai Jing

In drawing from this book’s characters, Ai appears to be accomplishing several goals. First, he calls on the viewer to recognize the deep heritage of imagination and creativity inherent in Chinese culture. Second, he reminds us that these drawings not only point to a long historical record of art in China (pushing back against the West and its perceived supremacy), but that its artists have long been skilled in the use of art as a tool for communicating ideas and complex phenomenon that cannot be easily conveyed through words. This former point is further reflected in the choice of the creative process as, in choosing to collaborate with master kite craftsmen, Ai is again paying homage to the pronounced Chinese heritage of ingenuity (here in both an engineering and artisanal sense).

Thus, in Taifeng we are treated to an artistic work that attempts to bring together these various aspects of Chinese ingenuity while accomplishing a third goal: reaffirming the cultural link between ancient and modern Chinese art. In this process, we see a strong example of the exhibition’s Raiz theme through this attempt to make foregone periods interpretable to the present (and vice versa) through the relatable meanings inherent in their art.

This is an immensely powerful statement (or at least an attempt thereto) as it provides an existential call for the maintenance of a distinctly Chinese form of art.[4] One can see Ai advocating for an art that is representative of the specific culture that gave rise to it (the soil and roots): an art which speaks to what these people are; challenges what they will become; extols their virtues; and exposes their contradictions. In Taifeng we get a sense that Ai is being quite clear in what he feels this style of art must be: it must be Chinese.

While this statement may seem to be a stretch, consider the following. This work is a form of kite – a distinctly Chinese invention. In its subject matter, it is depicting a distinctly Chinese myth in the form of a god who lords over the Qi (a renowned Chinese spiritual concept) and resides on a mountain wealthy in jade (a material central to, and reminiscent of, Chinese culture). The work is itself composed of silk and bamboo: arguably the two most distinctly Chinese materials. In other words, Taifeng is impressive in just how Chinese it actually is.

Yet, in parallel to these strongly traditional elements, we find a broader call for Chinese society to move forward, beyond the old, established ways. Expecting artists to firmly embed their art in the cultural syntax of China’s past, Ai similarly encourages his colleagues to work together in moving forward and to continue this strong tradition of creativity and innovation. China – like its art – should continue its progression and further push its boundaries. China cannot simply fall victim to the stereotypes for which it is looked down upon the west –  rote learning and imitation – and Ai reminds us that this would be entirely compatible with historical precedent [5]. In relation to some of the exhibit’s other pieces, we would expect Ai to advocate extending this mindset, as well, to that of governance and call on his compatriots to be open to exploring new avenues following seven decades of Communist rule.

Following this assessment of Ai’s apparent advocacy and work towards sustaining a form of distinctly Chinese art, I am forced to face my own apparent biases that accompanied me into this exhibition. Admittedly, I had never been an ardent admirer of Ai Weiwei’s art. While I certainly never hated it, I had always held a somewhat skeptical view of him in relation to the adoration he receives in the West.

To begin, I feel that while my own years of living in China likely give me greater authority than most Westerners, I modestly admit that China remains elusive to me and therefore cede that my own perceptions that follow may be misguided. However, in my own – admittedly limited – understanding, I have found it difficult to observe the same degree of admiration for Ai Weiwei among the Chinese population as I have in the West (where even a casual fan of art seems to have at least heard his name before). Contemplating this issue, I admit that I have (perhaps biasedly myself) come to view the popularity of Ai in the West as a product of the latter’s own inherent cultural biases (many of which latently adhere to a sense of superiority).

We want to believe that our own values based on primacy of the individual are superior and even go so far as to claim, in many instances, that they are universal and inalienable. We hold firm to the belief that the Chinese collectivist model – notably in its marriage with communist authoritarianism – cannot succeed in the long-term, leading us to identify a forthcoming triumph of our ideals within many of Ai’s pieces that are critical of the state and which glorify the essentialness of individual expression and rebelliousness against authority. “Certainly,” we tend to think, “Ai, as common in the artistic avant-garde, represents the nascent feelings of the majority of the Chinese that will eventually lead towards their converge with our proper way of thinking.”

In this way, I remain partial to the idea that our love for Ai Weiwei is less about admiration for his art and more a self-indulgent ego stroke designed to pat ourselves on our backs for adhering to the righteous path. (That it is an artist who will serve at the vanguard of revolution in turn provides additionally fodder for the ego stroke to be adopted among Western artistic circles). I fear that if he were not Chinese (even if he were, say, from Hong Kong or Taiwan), his art would be less widely extolled. I would, in full disclaimer, note that I have long entertained these sentiments and, in turn, found Ai to be overrated. Still – or perhaps because of these thoughts – I left Raiz with an improved sense of appreciation for the works and, more importantly, the artist himself.  

As alluded to in the discussion on Taifeng, I have come around to the idea that there is an argument to be made for Ai, himself, being conscious of the aforementioned points regarding the West and its affection for him. From this perspective, this piece takes on a further potential interpretation: that Ai wants to pointedly remind the West that China has its own proud heritage and does not need, or seek validity from, the West. Such an assertion provides an exclamation to the theme of Raiz and makes it more likely to have achieved the goal of art as a tool for cultural discovery.

At the same time, however, I am generally of the opinion that most of the exhibition’s political pieces are too on the nose for my taste and not deserving of the international acclaim they tend to receive. Nevertheless, a larger takeaway from the exhibition is in its ability to reflect the modern state of society – not just in China, but rather in this increasingly globalized world in which we reside. Whereas our shared experiences and historical understanding may have been enough to create a link between artist and spectator in the past, I find myself struck with the notion that contemporary art has made this increasingly difficult. Many of the pieces displayed in Raiz would be impossible to understand without some degree of familiarity with the artist’s life and personal experiences. In a number of cases, one also needs to know about Ai’s father as well as his own interactions with the Chinese state. One then needs to have some sense of Chinese history and its current political situation. Indeed, in the exhibition’s opening room, there is a long historical timeline covering the artist’s life as well as developments in China’s modern history (namely during the period of Communist rule). Beyond just being background information, it seems essential that the viewer read this in order to have a chance at more fruitfully appreciating the works contained in the exhibition (provided they didn’t come equipped with such knowledge).

This emphasis on the individual introduces a further point. Specifically, it raises the question as to what exactly this “tree” is for which art is serving as the “root”. Viewed through this lens, it is worth considering that the tree is not culture, but the very primacy of the individual herself as paramount in society. As the exhibition’s timeline suggests, the current environment often makes one feel as though we must know the artist if we are to understand his or her work. If you fail to read the bio of the artist provided, you will be made into a fool and feel a sense of insecurity in your struggle to grasp at the esoteric nature of the art. In this way, Ai’s work is reflective of many modern artists and saying what many people in society seem to feel: “you don’t know me and you cannot judge me”. If you don’t know the artist, you can’t be qualified to pass judgement on the quality of his or her output. At the same time, it speaks to the narcissistic individuality that increasingly seems to characterize modern society (at least as far as the pervasive selfies and public documentation of private experiences would have me believe). The process of art becomes, then, almost a form of therapy for the artist: He or she gets to tell you – through a one-way conversation – about all of his or her problems and hardships. The artist becomes the patient on the couch, with the viewer the attentive therapist, listening quietly, trying desperately to sympathize.

This critique notwithstanding, I would, in closing, characterize the exhibition as a success for both Ai and the curator, Marcello Dantas. Not only was the Raiz theme compellingly communicated, but it is likely that the exhibition was able to sufficiently expose Ai’s work to a wider audience located in a part of the world where he perhaps receives less fanfare. In this latter point, it is important to note that many of the works were only singular pieces of larger undertakings. Thus, Raiz represents, in some ways, a “greatest hits mix-tape” of Ai’s creations; a sampler of chocolates where you can get a taste of what’s available.   

[1] If my math is correct, the 137-day casting of a 1200 year-old tree entailed 30 times more the share of its life (0.031%) than the 6 hours needed to cast that of the (then) 61 year-old Ai Weiwei (0.001%)

[2] Given the state of China at this time and the tumult in which many Chinese lived, official records can often be debated. In this respect, there are some accounts that put Ai’s date of birth as 13 or 18 of May 1957 in contrast to the more widely believed 28 August 1957

[3] I have seen normally mild mannered individuals prepared to fight when told this – such is the degree of insult that these words invoke

[4] [Art with Chinese characteristics?]

[5] I have some reservations about how well the piece breaks from the idea of imitation since the figure of Taifeng is nearly identical to that of the Shan Hai Jing version presented above. Indeed, there is no clear agreement on how these characters should be displayed, with the book only stating that Taifeng resembles a human, has a tiger’s tail and emits light. As a result, the existing records we have of the characters differ a great deal in the imaginative capacity with how they are depicted. Rather than take the initiative to explore their own version of Taifeng, Ai and his collaborators mimic this specific version identically (note specifically the ray of light emanating from the eyes and the posture and hand gesture). It is, as such, an open question as to whether this is more innovation or imitation.