The structure in the lobby of the Arthur M. Sackler gallery, is a piece known as “Fragments”. It’s the work of China’s dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, created in 2005. Old and dark pieces of wood — most of them elevated — are connected together to form a haphazard structure. In the middle is a tall pole that rises out and towers high above the structure. A pair of conjoined stools sit uncomfortably on one side of the structure.
In the eyes of the uninitiated, “Fragments” may not seem to have any rhyme or reason. Visually, it’s not terribly appealing. Overall, the structure looks rather grim.
“Fragments” isn’t meant to be pretty. To really appreciate Ai’s vision, you have to know the backstory. I found this excerpt about “Fragments” from the Smithsonian blog, Around the Mall:
Between 1990 and 1995, floor space under construction surged by 750 percent in Beijing. This real estate boom, coupled with new housing deregulations, “radically changed the landscape of post-Tianenmen Beijing,” says Sackler Gallery curator Carol Huh. In the rush to modernize China, ancient structures were torn down and replaced with brand new houses and apartment buildings.
Using ironwood pillars and beams from dismantled Qing dynasty (1644-1912) temples, Ai worked with a team of carpenters to construct what he calls an “irrational structure.” At first glance, the large installation does indeed resemble a randomly assembled jungle gym. But in fact, the beams form a deliberate system that maps out the borders of China. The tallest pole, at 16 feet, marks the location of Beijing. Through the marriage of the discarded past (in the form of the Qing temple building blocks) and modern aesthetics, Ai explores the spatial and cultural transformations of modern Beijing, China, and the world.
Critics have suggested that this work is a call to action, symbolizing a destruction of the old ways to usher in a new era. “You might begin to ponder why old things sometimes need to be destroyed to create something new – a dangerous notion for the Chinese Communist Party,” writes Jane O’ Brien, BBC’s Washington correspondent. It’s poetic to see it that way, considering that Ai, a dissident who boldly speaks out against his government, is currently under house arrest. His act of salvaging lumber castoffs from ancient times is evident of Ai’s love for China, and perhaps even longs for the return of those glorious times. Anne Midgette of the Washington Post writes:
There is, in short, something worth saving about the fragments of a culture — the wood’s age and former function give it significance — even though cultural value is ephemeral (or the temples would not have been destroyed). It’s a strong message, but not a bleak one: The structure, tracing China’s outline, is nostalgic, comforting, embracing. Does it represent an older China? A friendly China? A China that castrates its own cultural heritage, leaving impotent fragments as testimony?
Ai is inviting us to consider the breakneck speed at which China is attempting to advance on the world stage. In a desperate effort to play catch up, China seems indifferent to its’ rich heritage, and the welfare of citizens. He might be trying to say, when physical development slows and reality hits that only a small fraction of the population is educated, China will then realise its’ shortsightedness.
Whatever Ai set out to achieve, “Fragments” undoubtedly casts a bright spotlight on the way things are done in China, provoking a lot of conjecture from those who view it. But it’ll only do any good if the message it carries reaches the people for whom it was intended.
*Arthur M. Sackler & Freer Gallery are located on the National Mall. Both galleries primarily feature Asian art, with current exhibitions featuring sculptures, ancient artifacts and artwork from countries like Japan, China, Kazakhstan and India. Their website is http://www.asia.si.edu.