Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum's "According to What?" exhibit. It commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Ai's most controversial work involves altering revered objects, like these paint-covered ancient Chinese vases, or destroying them altogether, as shown in the photographic triptych, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.
He Xie, or "river crab," consists of more than 3,200 porcelain crabs. "He xie" is also a homophone for the Chinese word for "harmonious," which is part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan. Today, "he xie" has become an ironic Internet euphemism for official censorship.
How do we honor the dead? How do we commit them to memory? And how do we come to terms with the way they died?
To start, we can name them. At least, that's the idea behind two installations at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The first lists information — including names and ages — about the thousands of children who were killed in a massive earthquake in Sichuan, China, in 2008. They're printed in Chinese on white paper that takes up an entire wall. In the second, those names are read aloud through speakers. The audio takes 3 hours and 41 minutes to play through.
Both are part of "According to What?" — an exhibition that showcases the work of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
To compile the list, Ai ran afoul of Chinese authorities by having citizen investigators collect the names of more than 5,000 children who were killed when their schools collapsed in the earthquake. He also asked his Twitter followers to record the names of the dead and email them to him, believing many to be the victims of shoddy construction.
When Ai published those names on his popular blog, government censors shut it down. A few months later, he was beaten by police and had to have emergency brain surgery.
The Useless Bones Of Sichuan's Collapsed Schools
No. 2,241 on Ai's list belongs to Liu Qiang, who was killed when the Juyuan Middle School collapsed.
Melissa Block's 2008 Reports From Juyuan Middle School:
I was at that ruined school in Sichuan the night of the earthquake and watched as small, limp bodies were carried out of the wreckage.
I met Liu Qiang's grieving family at their home a few days after. His ashes had been placed on a makeshift altar in a small box, wrapped in a white silk scarf. His stepmother handed me his school ID, which showed him wearing a white dress shirt.
I went to "According to What?" to see how Ai has turned that earthquake — and these thousands of deaths — into art. In particular, I wanted to see a massive floor piece titled, simply, Straight. It's 20 feet wide and 58 feet long.
I watch museum visitors crouch down and get close to see how it's put together. When asked how they would describe it to someone who hasn't seen it, their responses range from the literal to the deeply interpretive.
"It's like a giant array of rusted rebar, steel rebar poles," says visitor Tom Carter. His wife, Karen, describes it as "38 tons in this kind of undulating shape."
"It's not tall," says Marian Holtz. "It's close to the floor, but it has a rolling effect."
A seam running through the middle of Ai Weiwei's Straight conjures the image of a fault line.
Cathy Carver/Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum
"If you looked at it from the side, it would look like a Richter scale graph of an earthquake," Tom Carter adds. "There's sort of this seam down the middle that really looks a fault line in the earth."
"It looks like a fault, an earthquake fault," says Anh Nguyen. "That's what it reminds me of."
"It's a beautiful piece," says Helen Dickerson. "And it's also that sense of helplessness. Because here you have all this material, and what did it do? It caused no protection for anybody. It's frightening when you look at it that way."
On The Making Of 'Straight':
The Wenchuan Rebar, 2012
In a video that plays at the show, Ai explains how he made the piece: After the earthquake, he went to Sichuan and bought tons of the mangled rebar that I had seen everywhere during my visit. It was part of the earthquake debris, the useless bones of all those schools that collapsed.
His workers pounded the twisted rebar straight, piece by piece. They kept on hammering, even when he was detained for nearly three months by Chinese authorities.
When he was released, Ai mapped the rusted rods into stacks of varying heights — from a few inches to a foot or so off the floor.
Straight forms a 38-ton carpet of steel that one of the show's coordinating curators, Kerry Brougher, says was tricky to install.
"We actually had to do a lot of engineering on this piece because the actual weight is considerable and the floors will only hold so much weight," he explains. "So we had to have engineers involved to see how high we could get with the stacked rebar."
An Ai Weiwei quote on a nearby wall echoes the title of the piece: "The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight."
"That says to me that people are not standing up to corruption; they're not standing up for human rights; that our politicians don't always do the right thing," Brougher says. "We have to stop being so spineless, and we have to stand straight against corruption. That's what this piece is ultimately about."
Straight Travels With Message, But Without Artist
Ai has said that his art flows from his search for the value of life and individual rights. Perhaps he would be pleased with the way that Rashita Connelly, an M.F.A. student at Howard University, interprets the thousands of steel rods that make up Straight.
"[I'm] just noticing each bar. ... They're all different shades and tints of brown. ... None of them look alike. It reminds me of individuals," Connelly says.
"Usually when something happens en masse, people tend to just group it together and forget about it," she continues. "But the artist doesn't want you to forget what happened. It's a piece that you can let it simmer and think about it and come back and look at it a couple times."
After "According to What?" closes in Washington on Feb. 24, it will travel to Indianapolis, Toronto, Miami, and Brooklyn, N.Y. But Ai can't travel with the show — Chinese authorities have seized his passport.