Ai Weiwei exhibit shows nexus of art and politics

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Media caption Fragments form the outline of the Chinese map

The plight of Chen Guangcheng has raised the profile of Chinese dissidents in recent weeks. But activism comes in many guises, as the Smithsonian shows in two new exhibitions of the work of internationally acclaimed Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Standing inside Ai Weiwei's monumental Fragments, it is hard at first to see why this work could be regarded as political.

Made from scraps of antique Chinese ironwood, its symmetry and sense of space is exquisite. So is the traditional craftsmanship that enabled its assembly without nails, using joints and old fashioned carpentry instead.

But once you realize the wood was salvaged from dismantled temples, you might begin to ponder why old things sometimes need to be destroyed to create something new - a dangerous notion for the Chinese Communist Party.

And even if this thought does not occur, you will quickly learn from the museum that Ai explicitly meant his structure to represent China, designing the intricately locked pillars and beams to form an outline map of the country.

"It's a concrete entity, but it's also abstract," says Carol Huh, curator of the exhibition at the Smithsonian's Freer/Sackler Museums of Asian Art, where the exhibit opens on Friday.

"And that is, in effect, what a nation is."

Ai was arrested a year ago as part of a sweeping crackdown on activists by the Chinese authorities, who claimed he was being investigated for economic crimes.

He has been an outspoken critic of the government, and some of his recent work has attracted attention with its reference to surveillance cameras, the disruption of social media, and the injuries he sustained at the hands of the authorities.

But Fragments, which explores issues of tradition and cultural identity, should be seen as a work in its own right and not one defined by politics, says Huh.

She says that Ai is part of a long and evolving tradition of creating art as a means of expressing dissent, but that great art survives its contemporary context.

"Politics is always momentary. But there's something else in his work that stretches far beyond that. It places the political moment in a context that is much broader," she says.

Image caption Ai's reversioned animal heads are meant to provoke questioning about the fate of the Qing originals

"Chinese painting, calligraphy and poetry from other dynasties have encoded references to dissent. But there are multiple links and associations that endure much longer than the political situation."

But human rights lawyer Jared Genser says it's impossible to view Ai's work without being aware of its political power. "You can't disassociate the artist from the art," he says.

Genser is the founder of Freedom Now, a non-profit advocacy group. There, he represents another well known Chinese dissident, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabao.

"His writings require a lot of thinking and they are challenging, even for someone who is very smart and has studied political philosophy. That will appeal to a certain intellectual segment," he says.

"But Ai Wewei's work and what it speaks to is broadly accessible to anyone, regardless of their educational level. In that sense the authorities are more afraid of him and the power of his art than they are of Liu Xiabao - although they are afraid of both."

Next door at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art, another monumental structure by Ai is on display in the circular courtyard. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is a precursor to a major retrospective planned later this year.

Like Fragments, Zodiac Heads is instantly appealing. It consists of 12 towering bronze sculptures depicting the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

The pieces are reversions of figures designed during the 18th Century Qing dynasty for an imperial retreat outside Beijing. In 1860 they were looted by European invaders and their whereabouts and ownership remain an international controversy - five are missing.

Image caption Five of the 12 originals remain missing

Ai's recreation explores the nature of cultural identity and how it relates to political power. The Chinese government regards the original as a national treasure that should be repatriated, but Ai disagrees.

"It was designed by an Italian and made by a Frenchman for a Qing dynasty emperor which actually is somebody who invaded China," he says in the museum notes. "If we talk about national treasure, which nation do we talk about?"

Zodiac Heads was given its US debut in New York in the spring of 2011 - just when Ai was arrested. He was unable to attend the inaugural ceremony.

"So the heads acted for him," says Mika Yoshitake, the Hirshhorn's exhibition curator.

"In a symbolic way they represented the various aspects of him as an artist."

Ai raises social issues that are not unique to China, says Hirshhorn Deputy Director Kerry Brougher.

"It seemed to us that Washington DC is a place where a dialogue can take place about these issues, and the context of Washington makes them take on an even deeper resonance."

Such then is the power of an artist restricted in speech and movement but still able to command international attention through his work.

"What these regimes will learn is that they can imprison people but they can't imprison their minds," says Genser.

"Even my clients who have endured solitary confinement over considerable lengths of time are still able to think.

"A good idea goes a long way. That's why governments that are trying to restrict human thought and human freedom are fighting a losing battle."