“Chinese dissident artist” is a frequent descriptor used by the art press to define Ai Weiwei, but it’s a box that can’t really contain his tireless, borderless activism and prodigious artistic output in a wide range of media (including documentary film). Early in Ai’s career, he abandoned the fashions of art for art’s sake that ruled the ‘important’ critical arena and developed a personal language of conceptual art that absorbed and manipulated traditional Chinese forms for the purpose of commenting on political realities he was forced to endure both early on — when his poet father was exiled to the provinces — and later when he himself was incarcerated, and even beaten, by the Chinese state.
The Skirball Cultural Center’s current exhibition of Ai’s 2014 series TRACE — which in its entirety celebrates 176 ‘prisoners of conscience,’ though scaled down to 83 here — is particularly timely, after Belarus dictator Lukashenko ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair plane carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich from Greece to Lithuania, and had the young opposition leader arrested and probably tortured. The international outrage this has provoked, against an act of authoritarian overreach even by Russian standards, once again puts center stage the role of courageous men and women who have stood up to oppressive regimes.
TRACE was initially created for the lugubrious island fortress of Alcatraz federal prison, now a tourist site but by no means softened for sensitive visitors. Understandably, Ai considered this an appropriate setting for his eloquent tribute to fellow troublemakers, entirely designed and executed in 2-dimensional arrangements of Lego pieces. TRACE is as politically candid, and yet deeply personal, as another series of his, S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013), six dioramas of doll-scale figures in steel boxes viewed from above and through peepholes, illustrating his 81 days in prison — with ever-present guards hovering over his every daily routine in a sustained ritual of humiliation. Ai intimately grasps the peril of speaking truth to power.
TRACE plays with the art of portraiture in a way that is both disarmingly high-spirited and deadly serious. Up close its pixelated form suggests digital imagery while veering into geometric abstraction; from a distance, the faces cohere, emote and devastate — infinitely recombinant puzzle bits rendered into the immutably iconic. The whole is a tour of the world’s incumbent evil, and those who risk everything to resist.
TRACE is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center through August 1.