The Springfield Museums recently unveiled a new exhibit entitled “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent.” The exhibit will be on display at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts through January 2nd, 2022.  It features rare work spanning three decades of internationally renowned artist and social activist Ai Weiwei’s career.

The exhibit features artwork representing the artist’s engagement with traditional Chinese materials, methods, and artifacts. Weiwei’s work addresses social justice, while also exploring how the cultural present is informed by the past. 

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Maggie North, Curator of Art for the Springfield Museums to learn more. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Springfield Museums recently unveiled a new exhibit entitled Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent, which will be available for viewing at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts through January 2nd, 2022.

It features rare works spanning three decades of internationally renowned artist and social activist Ai Weiwei’s career, presenting artwork that represents his engagement with traditional Chinese materials, methods, and artifacts.

Weiwei’s work addresses social justice while also exploring the cultural present that is informed by the past. And I spoke with Maggie North, Curator of Art for the Springfield Museums, to learn more.

Maggie North, Springfield Museums: Ai Weiwei is an artist as well as a social activist whose work has international renown, and also, I think, international importance.

He works across media and he’s been described as a filmmaker, as an installation artist, a conceptual artist, a political dissident and a provocateur. But as folks who come to the exhibition will see, his work speaks to issues of universal importance. Issues like climate change, like human rights, the importance of free speech.

And so these are issues that I think viewers from Beijing, China to Springfield, Massachusetts, can relate to.

Zydalis Bauer: This exhibition was curated exclusively for the Springfield Museums and features rare works.

How were you able to decide which pieces of artwork to include in this exhibit?

Maggie North: Oh, it is always so challenging to make those decisions, especially with an artist who has been so prolific.

And we really chose them based on the themes that are highlighted within the exhibition, the theme of tradition, especially Chinese materials, traditional Chinese ideas about art making, which Ai Weiwei is constantly recontextualizing,repurposing sometimes in really radical ways, like painting a Coca-Cola logo on a Han Dynasty vase.

And so we were  driven by that interest in this aspect, this really multifaceted aspect of his practice, but also interested in his role as a dissident artist. He has been really targeted by Chinese authorities due to many of his expressions of free speech, his ideas about human rights, which were not always in line with the government under which he was working.

And his art, as he has said, is really inseparable from his life. He’s constantly playing with these traditional materials and motifs to prod at history, but also to prod at politics and the way in which we are always living in the present, but we need to get to know our past.

Zydalis Bauer: As you were just describing, Ai Weiwei makes the old new again using his traditional Chinese heritage.

In what ways will we experience this throughout the exhibit?

Maggie North: Great question. Many of the artworks on view in the exhibition use porcelain or wood joinery or jade. These are materials that have been used in China for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Porcelain in particular is a medium that visitors will see throughout the exhibit. And in English, it’s colloquially referred to as China. So, it has this incredible allegorical power to stand in for the country of China itself. So, visitors will see a lot of porcelain within the exhibit, but porcelain that’s being used and really new and different ways, for example, to represent oil spills in order to generate conversation about the impact of industry on the environment or porcelain being used to create tiny sunflower seeds, which are popular snack food, but are also a loaded symbol in China, because during the Cultural Revolution, the citizens of China were described as sunflowers and their leader was described as the sun.

So, these sunflower seeds help us speak to the relationship of the individual to the collective and of really prodding questions about how we all operate within our societies. Also, as I mentioned, there are traditional actual artifacts that Ai Weiwei uses as his raw materials for constructing artwork.

Maggie North: So, a Chinese table that he has turned into a sculpture or using marble to craft a surveillance camera, something that is totally of our contemporary era. So, bringing that clash of that past and present together.

But in addition to using old materials to make new statements, Ai Weiwei uses new materials to make different statements about older motifs. So, within the exhibition, visitors will also see a stunning and really, really colorful set of 12 zodiacs that are made out of bright Legos. So, our visitors of all ages are going to recognize these as Legos, but again, it’s a multilayered work.

It speaks to that tradition of the Chinese zodiac, as well as to a history that is involved with a particular set of zodiac heads that was on view at an Imperial palace but was eventually sacked during the 1860s. And so, this is a work that it’s fun, it’s magnetic, but it’s also really, really layered and speaks to ideas about international politics.

Zydalis Bauer: So, that zodiac these that you were just referencing is the one that caught my eye naturally because it’s visually appealing, and as a child, I grew up playing with Legos, right?

With so many thought-provoking pieces, which one is your favorite?

Maggie North: Oh, my goodness. It’s always a hard question. One of my favorite works in the exhibition, or at least one of the pieces that I find most provocative, it’s a Han Dynasty based on which Ai Weiwei has painted the Coca-Cola logo.

It’s a controversial piece because, of course, he is adjusting a piece of cultural heritage and an ancient object. But, it brings our attention back to the fact that this object was once not so unlike a Coca-Cola bottle, a functional object, something that would have been used to hold liquid, something that would have been produced en masse.

So, his work is, as we discussed, sometimes provocative, it really pushes the boundaries, but it begs us to ask these really interesting and important questions which are incredibly relevant to society today.

Zydalis Bauer: What do you hope that people in our region take away when visiting this exhibit?

Maggie North: I hope that the visitors who come to this exhibition will walk away with a new understanding of Ai Weiwei’s work and the ramifications of the ideas that he presents to us.

And the last part of the exhibition, as you’re walking through, actually includes an area where visitors are invited to respond to some really important questions, questions like, “what is the purpose of art?” and “how can art promote social change?” Or ‘if you had the chance to change something, what would you change?”

So, I hope that visitors are able to engage beyond the museum walls and into the community, to really take some of these ideas home and think about how they apply to all of our lives.