Along for the ride
IF you think your commute is a pain, consider the vehicular odyssey that Ai Weiwei endured to create his video installation “Beijing: Chang’an Boulevard.”
Traveling the entire length of this major east-west artery in Beijing, the artist stopped at 50-meter intervals (about 164 feet) to record minute-long takes on digital video. Each fixed shot captured a random aspect of daily street life -- traffic jams, road construction, looming office towers and (this being China) bicycles galore. The result is a 10-hour-plus videologue that charts the blood flow of Beijing through its supermodern heart to its impoverished extremities.
“Chang’an Boulevard,” which was completed in 2004, is having its U.S. premiere as part of the group show “Chinese Video: Chord Changes in the Megalopolis” at the Morono Kiang Gallery in downtown L.A. Given Ai’s godlike status in China and his ascending star in the West, this mammoth video may qualify as a must-see in some circles, though not necessarily a must-see-the-whole-thing.
“I don’t care if people watch it all the way through,” says Ai in a phone interview from Beijing. “I can’t even watch it after I’ve edited it. I don’t make videos for galleries or museums. Not even for people to look at. I make it for the dignity of the work itself.”
Blunt and frequently undiplomatic, Ai, 50, is a puckish art-world celebrity whose work includes sculpture, multimedia, architecture and his own big mouth. Last month, the artist made waves when he told journalists he planned to boycott the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. (Ai designed the Games’ bird’s-nest-inspired stadium with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.) In an article in the Guardian, Ai used an unprintable adjective to describe the movie directors involved with the ceremony, including Steven Spielberg and Zhang Yimou.
Ai, whose father was the famous dissident poet Ai Qing, has inherited the rebellious gene. In a photographic series titled “Finger,” the artist snapped images of himself brandishing the middle finger in front of the White House and in Tiananmen Square.
“Chang’an Boulevard” isn’t nearly as abrasive as that, but it does contain an undercurrent of rebellion. The video’s impassive, highly fractured depiction of urban growth can be interpreted to mirror the impersonality of China’s economic boom. “The whole development of China is quite blind,” Ai says. “We always think that growth is positive. But it also causes problems. There’s no aesthetic discussion of today’s growth. There’s no rationality. It’s like a giant monster.”
CRITICS have labeled Ai the Chinese Andy Warhol, and it’s easy to see why. Like Warhol, Ai is a master of the perfectly timed media provocation. He also shares Warhol’s proclivity for mixing art and popular culture. In one of his most famous pieces, Ai painted the red Coca-Cola logo on a priceless Han dynasty urn.
Ai describes Warhol as “the greatest American artist” and recalls that the first English-language book he read while living in New York during the ‘80s was “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again).”
In many ways, “Chang’an Boulevard” can be viewed as a direct descendant of Warhol’s “Empire” (1964), an eight-hour fixed shot of the Empire State Building. Warhol famously said the the film’s purpose of his film was to “see time go by.” Time is similarly important to Ai, who says he would never consider shortening his video. “You cannot take out one second, because it wouldn’t be complete,” he explains. “The nature isn’t demanded by the artist but by the nature of the subject.”
For those who wish to experience at least part of “Chang’an Boulevard,” Kevin Power, who curated the show (with assistance from Pilar Perez), recommends “walking in and out, concentrating for a time and feeling what is happening.” (The gallery is projecting the video on a 15-foot-tall wall.) Viewers can expect to experience some boredom, Power says, but also moments of insight. He suggests bringing “a bottle of white wine, a dozen oysters and a girlfriend -- like hang out for the night!”
Ai is less certain that U.S. viewers will find value in the video. In typically provocative fashion, he even discourages people from watching it at all. “I think they are wasting their time,” he says. “It would take about the same amount of time to fly to Beijing as to watch this video. I think it would be better for people to go to the shopping mall.”
‘Beijing: Chang’an Boulevard’
Chinese Video: Chord Changes in the Megalopolis
Where: Morono Kiang Gallery, 218 W. 3rd St., downtown L.A.
When: noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Ends: Nov. 17
Info: (213) 628-8208, www.moronokiang.com