The 2008 Sichuan earthquake profoundly affected the sensibility of the artist Ai Weiwei. The tragedy, in which nearly 5,200 schoolchildren perished, emboldened Ai to not just speak up but to yell out at the human injustices that have accompanied China’s economic boom. The artist and dissident has produced several artworks that both explicitly and subversively articulate the state’s culpability in the widespread carnage wrought by the earthquake.
Several of these works were displayed at the Hirshhorn’s Ai Weiwei retrospective last year, According to What? One, a serpentine path of school backpacks mounted to the second floor ceiling, was weightless. A second, Straight, was all weight and compression. The latter showcased a low-lying 38-ton pile of steel rebar salvaged from the earthquake site. The rebar, which Ai collected on a site visit shortly after the earthquake, was twisted seemingly beyond repair; the artist and his team spent the better part of two years straightening out each of the bars.
Now, for the 2013 Venice Art Biennale, Ai has produced three large-scale installations, one of which is a second, expanded iteration of Straight. (The others include a towering collage of intersecting wooden stools and S.A.C.R.E.D., a collection of scale dioramas that recreate Ai’s 81-day imprisonment in 2011.) Much larger than its Hirshhorn counterpart, the Venice Straight stacks 150 tons of rebar that have been seemingly made new and even usable.
The work is laid out along the floor of one room of the Zitelle Project Space, an old convent-turned-gallery that dots a tiny island stranded in the Venetian lagoon. It forms a rolling landscape that, like many of the artist’s previous installations—such as the gigantic bed of ceramic sunflower seeds he sowed at the Tate Modern in 2010—requires the observer to crouch down to fully inspect the piece.
At the Hirshhorn, visitors described the piece as resembling an earthquake fault, which is certainly true. But unlike S.A.C.R.E.D., there’s far greater room for interpretation here. For one thing, the gallery containing the installation was once used to house orphaned working girls who sewed linens. On a different level, Straight is a complete abstraction that would be at home at any contemporary gallery, without the backstory. For Venice curator Maurizio Bortolotti, the intention behind the works is clear: "He is making something right that was wrong."