Geography as (Nationalist) Art

This weekend I had the pleasure of taking some time to visit the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (its mission is to be the leading voice for contemporary art and culture). Of course, cartography offers plenty of avenues for artistry within the field of Geography. Most recently, Map Monkey at random notes published a post entitled “Maps as Art, Art as Maps.” At Hirshhorn I accidentally stumbled (almost literally) onto geographic art. I had completely forgotten (or was it buried deep in my subconscious map?) that Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is still there. For those not in the known, Ai Weiwei is an artist formerly of the People’s Republic of China. I say “formerly” because sometime last year (or the year before?) he got in trouble with the PRC’s government, escaped house arrest, hid in the United States embassy, and then was brought to the U.S. (presumably as an aslyee). The exhibit is well worth the price of admission (there isn’t any) and all you have to do is get yourself there (easier for my D.C. readers). I did take some photographs of relevant discussion points for this blog post, and yes, my flash was off!

Generally, the exhibit focused around one of the more tired modern artist’s theme of sticking it to the State. There are a couple of amusing photos (which I didn’t take a picture of) showing Ai Weiwei (presumably) giving the bird/flipping off/sticking up his middle finger to the Summer Palace (at Tian’anmen Square) and the U.S. White House. Whether senior Chinese Communists actually live in that palace is another story, but I guess not since there’s a museum attached to it. I suppose there’s a definite safety consideration with finding the Chinese Communist equivalent to the White House and giving it the finger but still its a bit odd.

By way of introducing (what I’m going to call) Ai Weiwei’s nationalist geography, I offer you this quote from the exhibit: “I make the useful become not useful; these objects combine the practical with change and illusion. They open a perspective so that we can have an understanding of the material or an understanding of space. It is a basis for dealing with perception, and when you think about how people use an object, you’re also using so-called knowledge in the sense that “useful” has a meaning. The meaning is the use. And that plays a great role in human understanding and culture.” Here I’m mostly focused on the “understanding of space” as Ai Weiwei is showing us in his art, his perception in other words.

The first picture below introduces the medium. In “Kippe,” “Tieli wood (iron wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bars).” In this we see Ai use dismantled temples as art, re-purposing Qing Dynasty spaces for a new artistic space. Using Tieli wood (from the Qing dynasty, the last great dynasty in China) is an important motif.

Kippe, 2006 (via Hirshhorn)

Kippe, 2006. (me, via Hirshhorn)

The second picture below is a “Map of China,” its rather tall and I had to stand on my tippity-toes to take this picture (hence why its at an angle). Its constructed from tieli wood. “The work can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a map of China, it can be understood as symbolizing the political unity of a country made up of many different cultural and historical factors. The monumental scale of the work suggests the long history of the Chinese nation.” Oh boy. First, there’s the island of Taiwan, off the east coast. Of course, that is where the Republic of China is located and which the People’s Republic continues to claim is simply a wayward province. Also present are the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Uighur Autonomous Region (both in the west). I’m not sure I believe “political unity,” under who’s policies? A poor choice of words to be sure, maybe social unity? But even that’s saying quite a bit, I’m not sure if the Uighurs and Tibetans feel socially unified. And then the caption let’s us know: THIS IS CHINA. The nation-state myth continues, and whoever wrote the placard bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Map of China, 2008. (via Hirshhorn)

Map of China, 2008. (me, via Hirshhorn)

The next picture is called “China Log,” again composed of tieli wood, this is the one that a gawking museum-goer (like myself) has the potential for falling over. Here again, Ai Weiwei shows us his perception of what constitutes China’s “space.” The island of Taiwan, Tibet, Uighurstan are all included. Its a bit harder to tell Ai’s potential stance on the disputed areas with India however (see next map). Based on the log, it looks like Ai doesn’t see believe in China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh and administration over the Siachen glacier.

China Log, 2005 (me, via Hirshhorn)

China Log, 2005. (me, via Hirshhorn)

India, China Disputed Borders (via Asian Defense)

The last picture is political, but only from a domestic (that is internal China) standpoint. In “Straight” Ai used “rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses in Sichuan following the 2008 earthquake. The work serves as a reminder of the repercussions of the earthquake and expresses the artist’s concern over society’s ability to start afresh ‘almost as if nothing had happened.’ The orderly arrangement of rebar evokes a Minimalist artistic aesthetic, but the large divide in the piece is reminiscent of both a ground fissure and of a gulf between values. It is a massive, physical work, designed to remind audiences of the individuals in danger of being forgotten.” This was 38 tons of steel, laid out on the floor and this picture hardly does it justice. However, we can clearly see the fault in the ground, symbolizing the earthquake. The 2008 Sichuan disaster was a common theme at the exhibit and there was a lot more art that dealt with that tragedy. This is by far my favorite piece, it memorializes the sad tragedy by using pieces from the schools and sits in your mind as a gigantic map of an earthquake and the destruction it wrought. I wonder if this was one of the piece’s that got Ai in trouble with the government? Did the regime interpret it as critical of the response?

Straight, 2008-2012. (me, via Hirshhorn)

Straight, 2008-2012. (me, via Hirshhorn)

Today we critically examined four pieces of geographic art from Ai Weiwei. While there’s nothing wrong nationalism within art, understanding the artist’s potential perspective and biases are always worthwhile. To me, Ai Weiwei may take issue with the government in mainland China and disagree on certain points in its foreign policy, but the vision of a unified China, including Tibet, Uighurstan, and Taiwan, is plain to see.

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