How Can You Be a Country?
Ai Weiwei’s first South American retrospective suggests that we embrace our painful histories and repurpose them for change.
I visited “Inoculación,” Ai Weiwei’s first retrospective exhibition in Latin America, in December of 2017. Later, perusing the Internet for criticism of the show, a headline caught my eye: a review published in the independent uruguayan newspaper La Diaria titled ¡Ay, Weiwei! In Spanish, ay is a sigh or a yelp, an expression of disillusionment or expectant hope. Ay is what we exhale, defeated by pain or pleasure, when threading words into proper sentences feels impossibly laborious. Like this emblematically Hispanic interjection, Ai’s work is defined by contradiction. In one gallery of his exhibition at the Fundación Proa in my native city of Buenos Aires, we can see the photographic record of a performance in which he destroys a priceless Han dynasty vase; in another, shielded by protective glass, his sumptuous casting of objects in Chinese jade. These gestures, incompatible but coexisting within Ai’s practice, illustrate the artist’s complex relationship to his country – an inner conflict that at once stifles and nurtures him, and one that many Latin Americans, including myself, will find familiar.
At first glance, the intent of the show seems purely retrospective: a selection of Ai’s most representative work cherry-picked for a new audience. Displaying the artist’s seminal pieces is prioritized at the expense of showing them in their entirety, and so several works appear in abridged versions (such as He Xie, the sculptural mountain of ceramic crabs that commemorates a feast following the destruction of his Shanghai studio by the Chinese government, one he could not attend due to house arrest). Beneath the biographical wall texts and didactic labels, however, flows a subversive undercurrent. The seeds for “Inoculación” were first planted in 2010, when the exhibition’s curator, Marcello Dantas, identified in Ai’s practice a successful model of art and activism that could be translated to Latin America (a place that, Dantas writes in the exhibition, “roars for social change.”)
The belief that art is a tool of mobilization and advocacy has been a longstanding feature of the Latin American cultural canon, yielding artist collectives such as CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte) in Chile and “Tucumán arde” in Argentina as well as iconic figures like the Brazilian conceptualist Cildo Meireles.Still, Dantas’s mission to bring Ai’s approach to Argentina and later to Chile and Brazil as part of the exhibition’s traveling tour struck me as monumental. I recognize in Ai’s work a willingness to face the real and nuanced feelings that define cultural identity. At a time of extreme binaries in both art and activism, Ai’s work represents the opposite of nationalist sentiment, a desire to dive instead into the murkier, less cohesive waters of our collective cultural reality.
Around the time of corralito – a sinister term meaning little corral used to describe the restrictive economic policies that followed the 2001 recession in Argentina – my mother, who worked for a national newspaper stumbling from instability, was offered a secure job in the United States. We left Buenos Aires and settled permanently in Miami, while my father and the rest of my extended family stayed behind. Growing up in the US, I would often spend months at a time in Argentina, and living in Miami felt more like a transitory phase than a putting down of roots. While my Spanish stayed razor-sharp, my cultural identity was as fluid and formless as an amoeba. I resented the rampant political corruption of my native country but thought no better of the nation that had welcomed me into its pudgy, soda-drinking, rifle-wielding arms. I existed in a cultural limbo, both resisting and vying for a sense of belonging.