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Ai Weiwei’s journey depicted at Smithsonian

WASHINGTON — From his gray-brick walled compound in northeast Beijing, Ai Weiwei barely felt the tremors from the Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008.

But within days, as the death toll mounted into the tens of thousands, many of them children buried under the rubble of shabbily built schools, he found himself standing in the ruins of a town destroyed by the 7.9-magnitude quake. For Ai, it was both heartbreaking and an existential moment that would find expression in his iconoclastic works, leading to clashes with Chinese authorities and catapulting him to status as one of the world’s most celebrated artists.

Ai’s progression from artist provocateur — his 1990s photographs of his middle finger raised at the White House and in Tiananmen Square come to mind — to dissident and political artist is on full display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” It is Ai’s first North America show.

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Taking an escalator up to the main exhibition floor, the visitor is met by the head of a giant snake coiling above. Upon closer look, one sees the gray- and green-laced snake consists of hundreds of backpacks, 600 to be precise, that are fastened together and slither along the ceiling of Hirshhorn’s circular hall.

The backpacks are meant to be a dirge to the thousands of young souls lost in the earthquake; for many, all that was found were their book bags strewn among the broken concrete and bent steel.

Ai photographed and collected materials from the site, blogged about the government’s “tofu-dregs engineering” that led to their deaths, and stood alongside inconsolable mothers whose one-child world was turned upside down by the disaster.

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“When the masses of life are ignored in this kind of tragedy, it takes away anybody who is alive,” the 55-year-old Ai says in a recent interview, recalling how much the earthquake had changed his own life. “It is a struggle — how as an artist do I do work to remember it when I see the pain is disappearing and it is like the memory is not real.”

Ai began blogging in 2006, producing sometimes caustic social commentary as well as musings on art and architecture, but it wasn’t long after he launched a “citizens’ investigation” of the quake victims that his confrontations with authorities intensified.

In June 2009, the Chinese government shut down his blog, which remains blocked to this day. Last year Ai was jailed for 81 days, taken to a secret detention center under round-the-clock guard. He has been charged with tax evasion, held under house arrest and suffered a beating that caused a brain hemorrhage — an MRI print of “Brain Inflation” is on display.

In more recent months, Ai says, nobody has been following him or standing outside his door. He has grown used to the 15 surveillance cameras around his compound, where inside his studio is something of an open house of musicians, artists and friends wandering in and out.

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Still, even as the surveillance and pressures have eased a bit, Ai couldn’t leave China to attend the opening of the District of Columbia exhibition last month, because Beijing wouldn’t release his passport. The show runs through Feb. 24 before it moves on to three other cities, ending with the Brooklyn Museum in 2014, but Ai isn’t counting on ever seeing it in person.

The show is something of a retrospective, spanning three decades of his works. Some of the earliest on display are his photographs from his dozen years in New York (1981-93), where he attended Parsons School of Design and lived an otherwise bohemian lifestyle in the East Village, waking up with little more to do than take pictures and occasionally making treks to Atlantic City, N.J., to play blackjack.

He photographed the police beatings in the Tompkins Square Park riots, homelessness and AIDS patients, poet Allen Ginsberg as well as ordinary street scenes and shots that show his interest in the art of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, an influence later seen in Ai’s Neolithic age vase with “Coca-Cola” painted on it.

Among his more familiar works at the Hirshhorn is “Forever” — 42 Forever-brand bicycles dismembered and reattached together into a circular form that speaks to the rapid modernization of China and the irony of a name that is disappearing from the city landscape.

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The range of Ai’s works can be seen in the various materials he uses. He creates several large-scale sculptures with wood dismantled from Qing Dynasty temples. One of them is carpentered in the shape of a map of China. Another, called “Kippe,” layers and fits the wood tightly over gymnastic parallel bars like a three-dimensional puzzle — recalling for Ai the parallel bars that were in every schoolyard during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the fond memories of neatly stacked firewood outside Ai’s family home in Xinjiang.

An entire room in the show is covered wall to floor with photos of the construction of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium, the so-called Bird’s Nest building that Ai helped design with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. He later denounced the stadium as a “fake smile,” a giant propaganda symbol.

Ai boycotted the 2008 Olympics, and by then he was becoming bolder in his criticisms of the government’s silence on the faulty school construction.

Ai and his citizen volunteers tracked down the identities of 5,196 students who died; their names, ages, birth dates fill one wall in the hall; one name after another is read by volunteers in a recording that goes on for nearly four hours.

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For Ai, the single most important work in the show is “Straight” — 38 tons of steel rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses in Sichuan. Ai says he and his team collected 200 tons of twisted rebar from the ruins.

“For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with it,” he says. “Then I said, ‘Let’s just straighten them, in a way as though nothing ever happened, as though it came out freshly from the factory, as though it never bore any weight or landed on anybody’s body or head.’”

The 38 tons on display are laid out in an orderly arrangement, its ground fissures and undulations making it look like a fault line. Hirshhorn officials, who had structural engineers test the strength of the floor before putting down the installation, described its massive, physical work as something meant to remind people of individuals in danger of being forgotten.

Ai himself put it this way: “If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?”

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don.lee@latimes.com

Beijing bureau chief Barbara Demick contributed to this report.

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