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Icon or iconoclast? Artist Ai Weiwei tangles with tradition at Springfield Museums

Artist Ai Weiwei's exhibition "Tradition and Dissent" at Springfield Museums contemplates heritage, value, and creative agency.Ai Weiwei Studio

SPRINGFIELD — In Western cultures, masters make masterpieces, forgers make copies, and originality creates value. In East Asia, copies are part of a great artist’s lineage. Chinese artists copy to participate in a master’s artistry, even move it forward. Western artists are more likely to tangle with their heritage like teenagers with their parents. Chinese artists have, traditionally, respected their elders.

Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist with Warholian humor and reach, has a new exhibition, “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent” at Springfield Museums. Drawn from a private collection, the show spotlights Ai’s ongoing conversation with Chinese traditions — his love for them and his willingness to push their limits.


As an artist and an activist, Ai challenges Chinese orthodoxy, and he has suffered for it. After an earthquake devastated a district in Sichuan province in 2008, he criticized the government because thousands of children died when schools collapsed, and Chinese officials didn’t initially release a count of the dead or missing students. He rallied volunteers to gather the children’s names, which he published on his blog. He made art about the tragedy in the face of the government’s silence.

His blog was shut down in 2009, and he was beaten by police, he said. In 2010, he was placed under house arrest in Beijing. In 2011, he was imprisoned for 81 days. After his release, he was surveilled.

When Ai finally left China in 2015, his mother told him to never come back. He now lives in Portugal.

In “Tradition and Dissent,” Maggie North, the museum’s curator of art, explores the artist’s devotion to Chinese cultural heritage, a crucial aspect of his vision. When Ai was a boy, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution set out to destroy the “Four Olds” — old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs. Ai’s father, a poet, was arrested, and the family spent years in two labor camps in northeastern China and in the western desert of Xinjiang.


But Ai knows, too, that those in power use tradition to prop themselves up. This exhibition asks what the bounds of tradition are, and whether, when you step over them, it’s irredeemably wrong, or irresistibly right.

Ai Weiwei's "Zodiac," 12 panels of Lego bricks.Ai Weiwei

“Zodiac,” Ai’s portraits of animals representing the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac, fills one wall. The Day-Glo tones and sketchy resolution echo Andy Warhol screen prints of icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon, and Mao. Ai’s poor resolution, though, is a playful contemporary twist. These are not paintings or prints — they’re Lego constructions. It’s dizzy, 21st-century Pop Art, but its roots are perhaps deeper than Warhol’s ever went.

A detail from Ai Weiwei's Lego installation "Zodiac" featuring a dog. Ai Weiwei

Ai has visited this theme before. His bronze zodiac heads were installed at the Rose Kennedy Greenway in 2016. Both works riff on bronzes made by 18th-century French and Italian Jesuits for a fountain at Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, and later looted by French troops during the Second Opium War. In 2009, two of the originals showed up at auction. A Chinese official made the highest bid but refused to pay, setting off a debate about repatriation. The statues were eventually returned to China.

These Lego portraits are nowhere near replicas, but, like copies made by generations of Chinese artists, they declare a living lineage, one that is pointedly complicated and full of shadows. Ai’s piece, the latest contribution to a conversation across centuries and continents, insists that such art is not China’s, or France’s, or the Jesuits’. It belongs to everyone.


Ai Weiwei's "Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo (Silver)," paint, Neolithic ceramic urn.Ai Weiwei

But if an object is precious, can it really belong to everyone? What does “precious” mean, anyway? Are ancient cultural artifacts precious? Because Ai has his way with them. He updates a Han dynasty urn, stamping a silver Coca-Cola logo across the front, capitalism’s very imprint defacing an antique.

Then again, North tells us in a wall label, during the Han dynasty — two millennia ago — Chinese artisans churned out urns like this one as if they were Coke bottles.

Ai Weiwei's "Blue & White Porcelain," a replica in the style of the Qing dynasty, Kangxi reign era (1661-1722).Ai Weiwei

Ai is sneakier with a series of porcelain replicas, reproduced as exact copies of Qing dynasty vessels with blue-and-white florals, the type we associate with the plates and teacups in our grandmothers’ china cabinets. What’s more precious: the originals, made at the imperial porcelain factory? Or these copies by an internationally renowned artist?

Ai has been called an iconoclast. But he cherishes the traditional techniques Mao sought to eradicate, such as the underglazes used in the blue-and-white porcelain. Or the classic wood joinery techniques that Ai uses in “Double Stools” to fix two three-legged stools together like friends in a three-legged race — once again, destroying antiques to do it.

We value relics because they tell us where we came from. Those stories and that value shore up power, and a precious relic may have a significant price tag. In China, Mao, the true iconoclast, strove to erase tradition. In this exhibition, Ai comes down in the middle suggesting relics, and indeed his own art objects, are mere evidence of the vigor and magic of creation — and that creativity, ephemeral as it is, is what’s truly precious.



At Springfield Museums, 21 Edwards St., Springfield, through Jan. 2. 413-263-6800,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at