CLAYTON ON ART: Variety within unity

By Alec Clayton on January 29, 2013


CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. I had never before heard of him, although I had seen some of his work without realizing whose work it was. Among other things, he collaborated on the design of the 2008 Summer Olympics stadium in Beijing. He is a sculptor, architect, photographer, filmmaker and a political provocateur. He has been imprisoned for his criticism of the Chinese government, and he grew up in forced exile in a labor camp because of his father's politics. His father was the dissident poet Ai Qing.

The narrator of the Sunday Morning show said that Weiwei celebrates "the group" (read collectivism, Communism) and the individual. Politically those are antithetical stances, but in art (and in life, like it or not) it is a sound principle. In society individuals coalesce for the good of the family or team or country while allowing individuals the freedom grow, create and shine on their own. What better example than Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.

In art, the principle of variety within unity is not an absolute necessity, but it's a damn good principle. I have often spoken of it in my art criticism. When the morning news show spoke of this principle in connection with Weiwei's art, the camera focused on a circular form on the floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and slowly zoomed in to reveal that the form comprised hundreds if not thousands of crabs. Then they showed other works by Weiwei including a large, circular cage-like sculpture made of stacked bicycles and a floating form like a giant spikey gumball made of old wooden chairs. What each of these works had in common was they were made of many similar but slightly different items that together created a single unified form. Each of the bikes was identical in that they each had two wheels of approximately the same size, handlebars and a saddle seat. But each was also unique. The same variety within unity can be seen in most good paintings or poems or musical scores. Not to mention people. Have you ever marveled at the fact that all humans look alike yet very few, if any, are identical?

Teachers in art schools often speak of contrast and harmony - same thing as variety within unity. Probably the most obvious examples are Andy Warhol's flowers and soup cans and celebrity portraits. A wall full of Marilyn Monroe portraits, each from the same photograph but no two identical.

The occasion of the Sunday Morning piece on Weiwei is his current show in the Hirshhorn in our nation's capital. The show is called According to What? It's a fascinating show, and Weiwei is a fascinating man. And by-the-way, if you look at his sculptural installations and look at photographs of the Olympics stadium you will surely notice unmistakable similarities in form.

Wouldn't it be cool if Seattle could get him to design the new home for the Sonics? Wouldn't it be cooler still if Tacoma Art Museum could do an Ai Weiwei show?

TAM did a Richard Long show a few years back, and it was hugely popular. Richard Long does essentially the same things with rocks that Weiwei does with industrial materials and found objects and crabs (among other materials), and Weiwei's work is far more profound and inventive.

LINK: "Azul: Contemporary Interpretations In Primary Blue Mood" in Tacoma