Our current Summer Session topic is celebrity, and today from our sister publication Art Practical we bring you a review by Heidi Rabben of artist Ai Wei Wei’s controversial show @Large. Rabben takes Ai’s position as an artist-activist-provocateur to task, suggesting that the show relies too heavily on his reputation without delivering the content to match. This review was originally published on November 24, 2014.
This text is likely neither the first nor the last thing you will read about @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Substantial coverage began far in advance of the insurgent artist’s opening in late September, and the hype has continued steadily since.1 So it is not without reservation that I contribute another drop in the bucket. But for a project that professes to be predicated entirely on freedom—of thought and of speech in particular—the vast majority of the @Large analysis is, at best, cautiously complimentary, and, at worst, reductive and descriptive. A number of factors may be contributing to this reserved reception, including the scale and budget of the project, the number of volunteers and assistants who assembled and help maintain it, the exhibition’s lengthy duration, and the nuance of its touristic setting. A section of the project website is even dedicated to these statistics, stressing the impressiveness of the undertaking.2 While surely significant, these elements overwhelmingly eclipse criticism about the artworks themselves. And beyond the stats looms an implicit hesitation about evaluating such socially conscious intentions, or perhaps further, of critiquing an artist–activist–celebrity like Ai Weiwei—a figure who, ironically, professes to invite and value serious critique. So in the spirit of one of the exhibition’s taglines, “Liberty is about our rights to question everything—Ai Weiwei” (which literally appears on the commemorative luggage tag), this review will question some of the core works and motivations in @Large.