In the second-floor gallery of the Perez Art Museum Miami, 38 tons of steel rebar lay in a rusty sprawl on the floor, salvaged and straightened by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from the wreckage of buildings toppled by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The metal rods are stacked in rows like shifting tectonic plates. The piece, titled "Straight," is Ai's statement on the disaster that claimed an estimated 5,000 schoolchildren, but whose true death toll the artist believes has been covered up by the Chinese government.
Just above the installation, the names and ages of the dead students are presented as a floor-to-ceiling memorial wall, a reminder that this exhibit, "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" is a marriage of art, politics and cultural activism. It's also a reminder that his works carry plenty of weight.
"It took three days and 12 people to haul the rebar up here. I can guarantee you this was a problem for other museums," says Tobias Ostrander, the Perez Art Museum Miami's chief curator, during a Thursday tour of the under-construction building in Miami's Bicentennial Park. The museum, which will include a Biscayne Bay-facing restaurant called Verde, hanging gardens, free Wi-Fi and 200,000 square feet of programmable space, is scheduled to open Dec. 4 to coincide with Art Basel week.
"The public knows about Ai as a political figure, but he's been an artist for much longer," says Ostrander, invoking the names of Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg when describing Weiwei’s influences.
The show, the fourth stop on a North American tour, is a three-decade retrospective on loan from Japan's Mori Art Museum that assembles the Chinese dissident's photographs and installations since 1980. The show is an auspicious fit for the new Herzog and de Meuron-designed museum, Ostrander says, citing the architects who worked initially with Ai to design the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
A 300-seat auditorium, which doubles as the museum's second-floor staircase, branches off into galleries containing the Ai exhibit. One installation, "Stacked," a tower of 760 Chinese bicycles welded together, features spokes and wheels branching over the hallway like an awning. Inside a main gallery, 80 black-and-white photographs snapped between 1980 and 1993 — when Ai moved from China to New York — chronicle AIDS demonstrations and Tompkins Square Park riots in the East Village; antiwar demonstrations; a then-campaigning Bill Clinton waving to cameras from his limousine; and the glare of a living room television, tuned to CNN and its coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings.
The room with the rebar holds Ai's most-recent works, including those he created just before and after his high-profile detention by a Chinese paramilitary unit in April 2011. A critic of China's communist government for decades, Ai was placed in secret detention for 81 days, and authorities later confiscated his international passport. "China is still in constant warfare, with destroying individuals’ nature, including people’s imaginations, curiosity, motivations, dreams," Ai told the New York Times in May.
For his installation "He Xie," 3,000 porcelain river crabs form a cluster of orange and black inside the gallery, his response to the Chinese government’s demolition of his studio in Shanghai. (The phrase "He Xie" is both a reference to crabs and to the government.)
In his photo series "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," Ai is shown in three frames dropping the 400-year-old artifact on the street, one of several subversive commentaries on the destruction of relics from China's past to create room for the country's future.
"By destroying something of old value, he is creating new value," says Mami Kataoka, the Mori Art Museum's chief curator. "He is a great lover of antiques, but he destroys it to move forward, away from totalitarianism toward equality."
Ai Weiwei: According to What?
When: Wednesday, Dec. 4, through March 16
Where: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Cost: $8-$12, free to Miami-Dade residents during opening week
Contact: 305-375-3000 or PAMM.org