By Mac Taylor
The following was written after the author’s visit to Ai Weiwei’s new exhibit “Hansel and Gretel” at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, which ran from June to August 6.
Born in Beijing, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has become rather notorious for his integration of brazen political statements into his artwork. Weiwei has a global presence, splitting his time between Beijing and Berlin, with shows recently exhibited in Prague, Florence, Amsterdam, Vienna, Melbourne, London and San Francisco. Utilizing multiple mediums, the artist examines social and cultural norms under a glaringly harsh bulb, subjecting viewers to experiences that tend to challenge ingrained belief-systems in daily life. However, despite maintaining somewhat controversial standards for what he would like his art to achieve, it is questionable whether or not Weiwei’s conceptual vision is as powerful as the reality of experiencing his work.
His newest installation, “Hansel & Gretel,“ focuses on the eerie prevalence of technology and surveillance in modern life. Distinctly unnerving, the piece is a collaboration with renowned architects Jaques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and takes place in the staggeringly massive Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Entering on the Lexington Ave side of the block-long iconic building, the exhibit immediately funnels viewers into a slim corridor that absorbs any and all lingering daylight. Facing a blackness Ad Reinhardt would approve of, the viewer is met with an uneasiness familiar to dark spaces, one that raises the uncomfortable question: Am I being watched?
Upon emerging from the corridor, what was confined space becomes the enormity that is the Armory’s Drill Hall. Inside, one is met with a complexly digital-patterned floor, with lights that flick and follow one’s movements in an oddly algebraic manner, with you as viewer left staring at your own aerial image imprinted on the paneling at your feet, whilst drones sweep in calculated configurations throughout the enclosed upper air space. Rather disconcertingly captivating, the installation follows you. Nowhere in the 55,000 square feet space can you run from your ghostly image on the ground. Look up, and the floor provides a picture of your face, looking back up at you. In this, Weiwei runs a virtual parallel to Narcissus’ silvered pool, to a drone-enhanced mirror room, to Hansel’s digitally generated breadcrumbs falling continuously on your shoes.
What’s more, it is not only the feeling of being watched, of being tracked down in a pre-programmed, inescapable manner that drives the installation; rather it is also the experience of observing yourself being watched. Here, Weiwei’s political aspirations as an artist shimmer through the geometric obscurity of the Drill Hall, practically screaming, watch how much we can WATCH you!
And yet, in a morbidly fascinating maneuver, the piece entertains. Hand printing over your own wraith-like handprints is, well, fun. Running in circles over your own electric footsteps, forging snow-angels in a digital darkness – it is amusing in a aesthetically probing way.
Until, that is, you eventually leave Part One of the piece, walk around the red-brick corner to the Park Ave entrance and re-enter the Armory for Part 2:
On iPads, which sit in symmetric balance atop mahogany tables, the viewer is invited to use a custom designed facial recognition app to find the image of one’s own face, photographed at various points throughout the exhibit, often sans viewer awareness. It is Hansel’s breadcrumb trail, modernized in an era of surveillance, stored for later viewing.
To the despair of many, Weiwei perhaps triumphs here, as the creeping feeling that first troubles us returns, as our faces are digitally paired with photographs from inside the Drill Hall. In this, Weiwei, while making an undeniably political commentary about the state of government surveillance (and possibly control), arguably transforms the act of being followed into art.
However, it remains unclear if Weiwei’s thematically intriguing installation actually delivers. His piece, though offering an intellectual reminder to more critically examine the state of surveillance, remains in theory far more compelling than in reality. Its potency is diluted in the vastness that is the Drill Hall, its technical ingenuity diminished and its potential as a type of political motivator is left slightly lacking. Despite aiming to invoke uncertainty or even outrage, as spectators we seem to have the opportunity to exit the exhibit unperturbed emotionally. Indeed, the space itself is so large that the desired effect has a proportionally minimal impact on the viewer. In this, the immensity of the Drill Hall reduces the force of Weiwei’s tech-centric vision because the viewer has too much space to explore, and further, to potentially forget the nature of the installation to begin with, as amusement overcomes uncertainty. Aesthetically, Weiwei could be pleased with such a reaction. However, had he perhaps utilized the space in a more self-conscious manner, the viewer would never have the opportunity to escape, so to speak, unscathed to begin with.
Yet, whether it be enjoyable or downright disturbing, in “Hansel & Gretel,” Weiwei’s evocation of outlandish, uneasy sentiment sings through the Park Avenue Armory’s ancient floorboards, snidely asking you to watch who is watching you, watch yourself being watched and notice how captivated you are with your own image. “Hansel & Gretel” continues to push boundaries that Weiwei has experienced, probing and poking at issues that, while saturating daily public life, are oft ignored or linger vaguely in the individual’s semi-conscious awareness. Indeed, though with debatable potency, above the Drill Hall floor, questions about privacy, governmental power and abuse — as well as societal intent on recording, surveying and storing information — collide indoors.
Contact Mac Taylor at ataylor8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.