A Virtual Tour of “Ai Weiwei: Fault Line”Exhibitions
A Virtual Tour of “Ai Weiwei: Fault Line”
An Interview with Curator Ian Boyden
by Michael Richardson
[Editor’s note: In the last week of March (2016), I traveled to San Juan Island in Washington State to see the exhibition “Ai Weiwei: Fault Line” at the San Juan Island Museum of Art and sat down with the exhibition’s curator Ian Boyden. I’ve known Ian for almost 30 years. We went to college together and I’ve followed his work as an artist, writer, and curator ever since. What follows is a record of part of our conversation. The press release for this exhibition can be read here. —Michael Richardson]
Michael Richardson: It’s great to see you in your element here. It feels like you were meant to be here on the island doing this work.
Ian Boyden: I really wanted to change my own practice within the arts, return to my work as a curator because there are certain things I can advocate for as a curator more effectively than I can as a solitary artist. I feel a critical ecological aspect of the arts has been lost in America, lost in battlefields of consumerism and branding and so forth, lost in that odd vacuum of art for art’s sake. Can we have an institution that counters that trend? What I see is a museum that focuses on art that is socially engaged. This exhibition with Ai Weiwei has been such a fantastic experiment in how a museum can function within a community, how art can engage aspects of policy, politics, and ecology.
Michael: This is a really small museum, and Ai Weiwei is, like, an international star. How did you manage to convince him to do this?
Ian: I wanted to bring attention to the very real danger of a massive earthquake in the region. Ai Weiwei’s work stemming from the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake is some of the most powerful work he has done and the most powerful work I know of that exposes the reality of what happens to humans and human societies when a massive earthquake hits. So, I reached out to him. He was under house arrest in Beijing at the time. Even in confinement, Weiwei was organizing monumental exhibitions all over the world—at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, The Hirshhorn, Alcatraz, etc. I knew the chance of him saying yes to an exhibition at a tiny, virtually unknown museum was very, very small. But part of me also felt that there was a good chance he would say yes because my motives were in alignment with the reasons he was making the work. It wouldn’t hurt to ask... To my delight he said yes. Ai Weiwei’s social engagement is matched by his generosity.
It is not about size! I don’t think most people in the art world really comprehend the breadth of Ai Weiwei’s subversive and dissident heart. Ai Weiwei does not exist to reinforce the halls of the establishment. The “art world” in America tends to be very exclusive and elitist: access is governed by a handful of big galleries representing a handful of artists, a handful of museum curators, a handful of major collectors. This is the so-called one percent. It is about money, about a specific form of cultural power. It is about control.
Michael: I’ve heard of the “big one” too, and am happy to be in Idaho most of the time. But say more about this risk.
Ian: The Pacific coast of Oregon, Washington, and SW British Columbia sits on top of what is known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone. It turns out this is one of the most dangerous subduction fault zones in the world, subject to massive earthquakes that, according to paleoseismologists, strike on average every 300 years, so a periodicity outside of our typical range of visceral memory.
The last major quake to hit this region struck on January 26, 1700, an earthquake that is thought to have been around magnitude 9.0—something similar to the Tohoku Earthquake that killed so many people and did so much damage to northern Japan a few years ago. I grew up in a little river valley on the north-central Oregon coast. As a young kid, I puzzled over a layer a couple of inches thick of sand and debris I found all over that river valley. I knew it had to be the remains of something big but I didn’t know what caused it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that it was the scar left by an enormous tsunami caused by that 1700 earthquake that swept into the valley reaching up 200-300 feet in some areas. It caused incredible devastation, I can only imagine that most people who were living at the ocean’s edge and in the estuaries perished.
That earthquake happened 300 years ago, meaning we are due for another at any time. And this haunts me. It is not the coming earthquake itself that haunts me, but our lack of preparation. This region is now home to ten to twenty million people. When this earthquake strikes, the death toll will likely be very high. A recent article in The New Yorker described in stark details what will likely happen here when this big earthquake hits. It’s titled “The Really Big One.” I recommend everyone read it.
It’s hard to get people to prepare for an abstract threat. There is virtually no political will to truly address it because to be prepared is expensive. Looking at the failed response to the last several hurricanes, I have a pretty good sense of how terrible the response will be when the earthquake strikes. So curating this exhibition is an action I can take to help raise awareness around this issue, and it has started conversations here in the community. In addition to wanting to share the work of Ai Weiwei and raise awareness of the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan (including the government’s suppression of information about this earthquake), my hope is that it will also inspire people to take measures to actively prepare.
Michael: This exhibit really makes you think about the fragility of things. Many young lives lost that could have been saved — with a few architecture changes. It’s heartbreaking to have the names of the dead filling the wall of a gallery, almost as a shadow memorial and as an attempt at accountability. But say more about the title, Ai Weiwei: Fault Line.
Ian: The title has a double meaning—one geological, one political. Earthquakes occur along tectonic boundaries, especially where two plates of the Earth’s surface come in contact with each other. These boundaries where the earth shifts are known as faults, and often those faults are visible on the earth’s surface. Those visible traces of the movement of the earth are known as fault lines. The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake occurred along what is known as the Longmenshan thrust fault, which runs across western Sichuan province, right on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.
However, the title takes on another dimension in Ai Weiwei’s work. Prior to 2008, it was well-known that this area was prone to earthquakes. And there were all sorts of building codes written to ensure that buildings built in the region could withstand a major earthquake. However, when the earthquake struck, a disproportionate number of government-built schools collapsed. What became clear was that the companies that built those schools did not adhere to the earthquake codes. They cut corners and ignored the codes to build schools cheaply and quickly. This was not a private enterprise—the schools were built under government contracts. The reason the schools collapsed was because of massive corruption and greed within the government, the kind of corruption that occurs when a government fails to understand that its function is to serve and protect its people. The Chinese government’s response to this earthquake was absolutely horrific. Instead of the people responsible being held accountable, the government chose to close ranks and protect those who were responsible. They suppressed all information about who died, how many. Even the families of the children who were killed were intimidated. In some cases, they were bribed with money not to talk about the death of their child. Citizens who called for justice were intimidated, imprisoned, and some, like Weiwei were beaten by the police. Ai Weiewei’s beating left him hospitalized and unable to testify in court. So that is another type of fault line. A fault line running through society.
Michael: This is only a slice of what Ai Weiwei has done respecting the earthquake, right? How did you choose what pieces to include?
Ian: Ai Weiwei has made over twenty major projects that investigate or stem from the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake—documentaries, videos, sculptures made with materials gathered from the earthquake zone, site-specific installations, an abundance of blog posts, you name it. This outpouring of work is difficult to characterize as it is so diverse. If anything is consistent it is an incredible fluidity of mind. In many ways, I think Ai Weiwei discovered a fundamental nature through this tragedy. Obviously, he had been very active as an architect and artist prior to the earthquake, but in the wake of this tragedy we see the full blossoming of Weiwei’s love of humanity, the full blossoming of him as a political dissident and champion of human rights. Ai Weiwei’s response as an artist and human is one of the most ferocious flowerings I am aware of.
The exhibition is composed of three pieces that are representative of his response to the earthquake: “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” (2008–2011), “Rebar and Case” (2014), and “Little Girl’s Cheek” (2008). I would like to say these three pieces reflected my selection from that larger body of work,but the reality is that these pieces happened to be available from another exhibition, curated by one of his assistants named Siri Smith, and that was displayed at the Anderson Foundation for the Arts. I took those three pieces and reframed them to address an urgent regional issue.
Michael: The exhibit feels in some ways like a theatre. While you have three very different media, they feel unified. Take me through the exhibition piece by piece?
Ian: It was important to me that these three works be presented together in one space so that they would interact with each other. Very little in our world is truly discrete, especially when it comes to catastrophe. To isolate them, as things often are in a museum, seemed wrong to me. While these three pieces are quite different in nature, they also resonate with each other in remarkable ways.
The video, “Little Girl’s Cheek,” is a documentary. It presents footage of interviews with parents of the school children who died, raw footage of the aftermath, sounds of excavators digging through the rubble, sirens, news footage, CCP officials spinning the story, doctors, emergency personnel, and so forth. There are even a few photographs of the children themselves. So much emotion, people grieving, anger, disbelief, calculated denials—it is about as close to the reality of the tragedy as we can get. I projected this video against one of the four walls, and the sounds of that video filled the room embracing the other two works.
The “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” provides the immense scale of the tragedy. These names wrap around two of the gallery’s walls. The list is basically a giant spreadsheet, all the information held in a massive grid. From a distance it is just a pattern of lines, crystalline, and shimmering like the data stream in The Matrix. As you approach, the data starts to become legible. Each name is assigned a number, 1 through 5,196. The grid stretches out and there is a sense of infinite stillness to it, in a similar way that the Vietnam War Memorial feels in Washington D.C. Each name represents a life of a child who was lost. Weiwei did not try to aestheticize it in any way other than to render it on this enormous scale. It is just raw data. It is printed on regular paper. There is nothing fancy. No special typeface was used. His only request was that this list be pasted to the wall as cleanly as possible and that the wall be as close to the color of the paper as possible.
But, of course, the moment you put something in a museum, all of these factors become matters of scrutiny. It is an object that challenges our understanding of what constitutes a work of art. Placed in a museum it becomes subversive in its own way. By eliminating all of these material aesthetics, it demands that we wrestle with the content. Our individual apprehension of this information, or emotional response to it, becomes part of the artwork. It might only exist in those moments of apprehension, those moments when perception fuses with understanding. Wrapping around the walls, this list becomes the backdrop for the third piece in the exhibition.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is titled “Rebar and Case” and it is composed of nine cases, each of which contains a facsimile of a piece of iron rebar carved out of marble. Weiwei rarely interprets his own work, rarely explains what it is “about,” leaving that act of discovery to the viewer. There is an interpretive label that gives you a few details. The pieces of marble rebar are modeled from actual pieces of iron rebar pulled from the collapsed schools. The marble was sourced from the same quarry as the marble that was used to build Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Tiananmen square. That’s all we’re told. The rest is left to individual interpretation. In the context of the rest of the exhibition, it becomes virtually impossible not to interpret these cases as coffins. The facsimiles of rebar carved out of fragile marble become the bones of children. They look like spinal columns, like vertebrae. Again, Weiwei’s instructions were minimal. They were to be placed directly on the floor, not on raised pedestals. He asked that some of the cases be opened and some to remain closed, but that I could choose which. And he wanted people to be able to walk around them. There are moments when you look into these cases and it feels like you are viewing the dead at a funeral.
The craftsmanship of “Rebar and Case” is mesmerizing. Every case has been made specifically to hold the twisted form of the rebar it holds. I’m not sure there is a square corner to be found in them. Every mitered joint of the wooden cases is perfect. The lids fit with utter precision. The carving of the marble is exquisite—it is truly a mystery how these pieces were even made without breaking the marble. To me, this is one of the most beautiful material transformations I have ever encountered. Iron, a metal that is so ductile, dense, and dark is transformed into marble, a stone that is so luminous and fragile. It is as though the material transformation were paying homage to the fragility of life. And, of course, to ally these pieces with Mao Zedong’s mausoleum is extraordinarily radical if you think about it. It draws attention to the relationship of the dead to the state, how does the state treat the bodies of its citizens?
And there is a detail that I would love to have confirmed. The wood he chose to make the cases is called huanghuali, which is a wood traditionally used to make furniture and other objects. The figure of that wood is described as resembling “ghost faces.” Ai Weiwei pays such close attention to all material details, I can imagine this may have played into his choice of this wood for making the cases.
Michael: How have people reacted to these pieces?
Ian: The outpouring of response to this exhibition has been amazing. We have had visitors from all over the world, numerous groups of students from local and regional schools. There are a number of individual reactions that have deeply touched me. One afternoon, I walked into the exhibition and discovered that someone had left a bouquet of daffodils at the foot of one of the cases, an offering, an offering to those spirits. The purity of that gesture struck me. Another day, a child sat and made drawings of each piece of rebar on display and when I admired them, he gave them to me. I thought, there is the blossoming of mind, this is a reason why we need museums.
The cases are arranged on the floor of the museum. Most people stand and look down into them. But there have been many who have sat or knelt down on the floor to look at them more closely. There is a form of beauty to these pieces of rebar and the cases that hold them that is very unusual. You want to get close to them. I have a set of museum guards that make sure that people don’t touch them, but I encourage people to look closely. I think it is great when people get down and crawl around on the floor. I personally like the perspective when I sit on the floor next to these pieces of marble. I’ve taken a lot of photographs of the exhibition looking through the rebar itself to see how it framed and changed my experience of the space, the scale of the space. How and what does that rebar hold? When you get up close, you can see the crystalline structure of the marble glittering subtly, you can see the relative transparency of the marble. You can also smell the fragrance of the wood Ai Weiwei used to make the cases. I really like the juxtaposition of the curved lines of the rebar against the orthogonal grid of the wall of names.
Michael: You told me that installing the “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” had a deep impact on you. Tell me about that.
Ian: I wish I could make an exhibition of the experience of installing this name list. It documents the names of 5,196 school children who were killed in the earthquake when the schools they were in collapsed. The list also includes their name, age, gender, grade, and the class they were in. These are all names the government refused to release in the aftermath of the earthquake. It is hard to believe, but this list is the result of hundreds of people canvassing the communities hit by the earthquake and gathering the names one by one. These people did this out of love and compassion, out of a necessity to do the right thing, out of grief. And they did it at great personal danger of getting in trouble with the authorities. How the state relates to the dead is an extraordinary measure of the quality of a government. And how we on individual levels relate to the dead is a measure of our own character. It is hard to overemphasize the power of this list.
Installing these names is one of the most moving experiences of my life. The list was delivered to me as 21 sheets of paper each of which measured 10.5 feet tall and 2 feet wide. The instructions were to paste these sheets directly to the wall, to make a single wall of names that was 42 feet long. This is easier said than done. It took me three days of painstakingly careful work. I first scribed the wall using a laser and a level, and then, one by one, carefully attached each sheet of paper to the wall with paste. Once a sheet was in place, I then smoothed it out so there were no air bubbles. The paper was very delicate, so I had to be very careful, smooth it softly. It required us to be very deliberate. In the process, I passed my hands over every name. It became quite rhythmic. And at some point in the process, I started to say their names aloud in the quiet of the museum.
And then my assistant, Patricia Bolding, asked me if the names meant anything. I began to translate those names for her as we worked. The meanings of some of the names are so beautiful: Snow Lotus, Humane Iron, Pile of Stones, Clear Thought. There is no real reason any sound should mean anything at all. That a sound comes to have a specific meaning or set of meanings is one of the most magical of human constructions. How to describe that moment when sound suddenly crystallizes into meaning for the first time?
Michael: So are these then the names I’ve been seeing you post to Twitter each day?
Ian: Yes. I said there were only three pieces to the exhibition. But in a different sense, there are four, the fourth being these translations I post each day to Twitter. I felt like the lives of those children became more real as the meaning of their name became more tangible in English. Every day, Weiwei posts the names of children whose birthday it is to Twitter. Each morning when I wake up, I read this list of names. Then I spend time researching the names and translating them into English. And then I post those translations as a reply to his original Tweet. I guess that’s how conversations work on Twitter.
At first I was just translating a few names, sometimes posting the translation with a photograph from the exhibition. But then I began to find that the names defied a single translation, that to really make sense of them, they needed more explanation. My old love of Chinese paleography has come alive again as I try to understand these names. To embrace the complex imagery and associations of these names, I have been writing short poems to accompany them. They have to be quite short to fit Twitter’s character count. I like the challenge of that limitation. It forces a form of concision. And I have loved writing poems again, fascinated by how the mind behaves when I’m writing a poem.
Michael: What has Ai Weiwei thought of these translations? And will you continue them after the show is over?
Ian: I am not sure what Ai Weiwei thinks. Sometimes he comments on them or retweets them. There are several other Chinese dissidents who have taken an interest in these poems, and several American poets as well. The poet Sam Hamill has encouraged me to continue translating them. Every exhibition leaves me with a gift of one sort or another, a doorway into another project, perhaps something that fundamentally changes the way I think about the world, or how I understand myself. I think these names are one such gift. I’m enjoying the process of translating them, and even though the exhibition is coming down next week, I think I’ll continue translating them for an entire year. I want to read and translate all of the names. That can be my way of honoring the memory of these children. We’ll see.