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Ai Weiwei retrospective shows off what he learned at Parsons

Ai Weiwei during his “Gangnam Style” parody.

Ai Weiwei, the world famous Chinese artist, confounds expectations. Recently, in the middle of a round of press interviews in timed to his new career-spanning retrospective at Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Gallery, during which writers around the world attempted to grapple with the work and legacy of this former Parsons student – “Is Ai Wei Wei a political artist or an artful politician?” wondered Peter Schjeldahl in the pages of The New Yorker – he released an extremely silly video of himself mugging and dancing to the Korean pop juggernaut “Gangnam Style.” It’s not exactly the comportment one expects of the world’s foremost political artist and dissident.

As with much of Ai’s work, what appears silly at first blush has layers upon layers of embedded meaning. He titled his version, in Chinese, “Grass-Mud Horse Style,” a reference to an older meme which featured children’s voices sings about the “grass-mud horse,” a fictional animal whose name sounds very much like a vulgar obscenity in Chinese. The point was the absurdity of censorship: it is okay to say these words over pictures of animals, but not in other circumstances.

Interviewed in Time magazine recently, Ai spoke about how his time at Parsons changed his perspective on art, helped him to understand works by artists like Jasper Johns, which had previously been confusing and uninteresting to him, and furthered his development as an artist.

“After I went to Parsons,” he told Time, “I looked at Johns and realized he is really an artist for the artist. He is really concerned about very essential language and the meaning of interpretation and the way really to look at [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and [Marcel] Duchamp. So Johns allowed me to take another step to look at what Duchamp did, which is the intellectual part of art, concept and language. That is why I do feel quite grateful for what Jasper Johns did, and that is why the title [of the Hirshhorn retrospective] uses one of his one of his works, ‘According to What.’”

Ai Weiwei’s retrospective is on display now at the Hirschorn Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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