AI WEIWEI at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), Saturday ( August 17) to October 27. $25, srs $21.50, stu $16.50, Wednesday 6-8:30 pm $12.50. 416-979-6648. Rating: NNNNN
Ai Weiwei is probably the most famous artist in the world right now. After emerging from a sudden disappearance and six-month detention by the Chinese government, he has become the undisputed face of artistic bravery in the face of political tyranny.
According To What? ranges through 20 years of Ai's work, starting with his decade in New York as a student and working artist. Objects express complex concepts surrounding appropriation and resistance.
Grapes connects 17 antique wooden stools into a sculptural cluster; Colored Vases dips neolithic Chinese ceramics in commercial house paint. Forever, probably his best-known sculptural piece, joins 42 Chinese bicycles in an endless circle, a tribute to that country's premier means of urban transport.
Other pieces carry political double meanings. He Xie is a mass of hundreds of porcelain river crabs, but "xie" also sounds like the word for "harmony" in Mandarin, and "maintaining harmony" has become the state's euphemism for censorship.
Nothing politicized Ai more than the Szechuan earthquake of 2008, when corruption and shoddy construction resulted in the collapse of school buildings and the deaths of more than 5,000 children. Ai's insistence that they be remembered despite a government whitewash has been his central campaign in the years since then.
His passion is obvious in Straight. Consisting of 38 tons of rebar laid out on the gallery floor, it forms a terrain split in half by a seismic rift. These are the same twisted metal bars Ai personally salvaged from the earthquake's wreckage. Each was then straightened before its inclusion in this work.
Every element of the sculpture, from process to material to final form, expresses Ai's deep desire to reshape a hopelessly corrupt and tangled situation. Knowing that the bodies of the earthquake victims were once trapped within the sculptural material, Straight has as visceral an impact as a pile of shoes from Auschwitz.
This is what art is supposed to do.