Ai Weiwei: According to What? @ the Brooklyn Museum


Photography by : Ai Weiwei & Ken Caruso

Text by : Ken Caruso

August 10, 2014

If you didn’t get a chance to see the amazing Ai Weiwei: According to What? installation at the Brooklyn Museum then you might want to read this overview and compact opinion of my take on the works that I felt were compelling and moving.

Activism, like music, goes hand in hand with the arts. I remember growing up I was good at art in high school, wondering where this might take me, until I spoke to my teachers or guidance counselors (don’t forget I’m 52). To them artists were self-centered individuals or just hippies that didn’t want to really work. So my counselors came up with the bright idea that I should be an accountant. “Because your so good at math and its a respectable occupation that had steady income.” Never mentioning the fucking boredom, mind numbing, lack of creativity and thoughts of going on a killing spree from the mundane that fill your head with dread…but there wasn’t a proper saying for it like “he went postal”… “he went accountant on the poor bastards” just didn’t sound as cool. So needless to say I didn’t even make two full years at college. But I digress. That singular blanket of accusation that artistic people were self-centered couldn’t have been farther from the truth. It’s the artist and the arts that are always the leaders in fighting for causes, making lives of the less fortunate a priority. Fighting for clean water, schools for the underprivileged or food for the homeless. You name it, the artistic ones love a challenge whether they are musicians, architects, designers, or actors. They are always trying to find ways to help the helpless and change injustice. So as I put that logic to rest…there are still not that many artists that have taken on the challenge of trying to change their own country. Trying so hard that they were labeled a national security risk…especially when that country is China.

Ai Weiwei is all of the above. Artist, photographer, architect, designer and activist all rolled into one man with a fucking strong belief of what’s right and wrong. He wanted to change the injustice of his government and officials (especially when there were children involved) and he was willing to put his life and freedom where his mouth was…and did just that.

He is already considered one of China’s most prolific and controversial contemporary artist of all time. Whether it be his collaboration with Herzog & De Meuron on the 2008 Beijing Olympic National Stadium called the “Bird Cage.”

His activism against the AIDS crisis in NYC way back in the early 80′s, gay rights or just dropping a Han Dynasty urn to the floor, thus destroying 2,000 years of culture for his artistic vision. He could of moved back to NYC and lived a comfortable lifestyle, mingling with the rich and famous and just give to his causes threw philanthropy. But he chose to be on the front line for his latest cause…And turning that cause into a fight for his own freedom….and life.


Ever the thought provoker and provicator…… Ai dunked these ming vases into paint changing the vase from Ancient…. to modernism. The photographs ” Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”on the wall shows the action of an object
representing 2,000 years of China’s cultural tradition and legacy. Together these three photographs form a work of conceptual art and records the moment when tradition is transformed and challenged by a new value.

All of these latest events,that could be a plot to a Blockbuster movie, started in 2008 with the 8.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Sichun Province in China claiming the lives of more than 70 thousand people. 14,000 school rooms were torn apart and thousands of the dead were school children. In certain towns only the schools would be obliterated while buildings right next to them would still be standing…undamaged. Shoddy work practice, pay-offs, corruption and cover ups were all brought to light against the government by Ai thus making him a marked man. Ai Weiwei even made a list of all the dead children into a work of art calling it “The Citizens Investigation Project” compiling of almost 5,385 names, year, class and sex of each victim, stating that no child should ever be forgotten. Ai posted the list of names and numerous articles documenting the investigations on his blog which was then shut down by the Chinese authorities in May 2009.


The rubble in the schoolyards were the rebar was recovered for the piece “Straight.”


Straight , is 73 tons of steel rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses. Ai had every mangled piece of rebar straightened.” Bringing the metal back to its original state before the collapse is like some kind of atonement. The large divides in the piece is meant to suggest both a fissure in the ground and a gulf in values.


On the walls in the background is the piece that Ai calls “The Citizens Investigation Project” which list the names of 5,385 children,so far,age,class and sex. This is his way of stating that all life matters and these children will never be forgotten.


In July 2009, Ai had a physical encounter with a group of police at a hotel in Chengdu, Sichuan province, during which he was beaten on the head. Ai had gone to Chengdu to attend the trial of his friend Tan Zuoren, a campaigner in the Citizens Investigation project, who had been charged with “inciting subversions of state power” (Tan received 5 years in a state prison). Later, while on a plane to Munich, Ai suffered severe headaches, and immediately upon arrival in Munich underwent emergency brain surgery. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.


Ai Weiwei tweeted this image to around the world when he was taken into custody by the Police in 2009.


“Brain Inflation” is the MRI of Ai brain which shows the hemorrhage from being struck on the head from the police in his hotel room when they went to arrest him.

Then on April 3 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested at the Beijing Airport, they say for tax evasion, but he was locked up for 81 days. Nobody was able to find him, not even his family, and he was never formally charged. He was held in a secret detention facility where accounts say he was beaten and starved.


One of the six iron box’s that make up the pieces called S.A.C.R.E.D. In half size proportion these re-enactmenst of his life during his detention. The gaurd’s would watch his every move from showering to urinating to sleeping.

After his 2011 arrest, Ai Wei Wei still protested against the Chinese government using his artwork and the Internet. He still suffers from the misconduct of police harassment. The Chinese government wants to silence him so he will lose his power to voice his beliefs against the government. They wiretap his phone, computer and house and the police constantly follow him. Regardless of these threats Ai Wei Wei continues to fight against the system and support the Internet stating ” With the internet Chinese civilians can finally take self-responsibilities and fight for a better life and government.”

He still is restricted to leave his country and could not attend any of his museum shows in Canada or the U.S. Even under strict watchful eyes Ai was able to ship out of the country scaled versions of his prison cell that he was put in for the 81 days and re-enactments of his daily mundane life under the eyes of the guards.


Still being defiant towards China and its values. You may lock up ones body…. but you can never lock up ones mind or soul. There are way to many cause that this man has fought for and I’m sure there will be plenty more down the road. Remember…One man can not change the world…But he can change all of us to help him. Peace.

Ken Caruso is the ANTI Society’s in-house street art and photography expert. He is a decorative artist and owner and operator of Alternative Interiors in New Jersey as well as an avid collector and graffiti hunter. He also has his own radio show on Friday nights “Live…Without a net” on Follow him on Instagram  @djkcaruso.