I thought the gift shop was an Ai WeiWei installation

Ai Weiwei: According to What?
AGO August 17 to October 27, 2013

Ai WeiWei Exhibition Entrance at AGO.A friend invited me to the members’ preview of the monumental Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibition at the AGO. In a refreshing departure from gallery policy you can take pictures of his work. Ai Weiwei wants you to. You still can’t touch the work, but we overhear staff advising the floor personnel not to get too hyper if people do because Ai Weiwei wouldn’t mind. His Moon Chest piece is particularly tempting since you can walk through it and poke your head into it.

Ai Weiwei is an artist who insists on engaging people. It’s exhilarating to see artwork that challenges the political world and the cultural one. Standing firmly on the shoulders of the historical avant-garde, Ai Weiwei is a force to be reckoned with. I hope this show will inspire Torontonians to engage with what’s going on around them in their city.

While walking around I wander into the adjacent gift shop and, at first glance, I think it’s an Ai Weiwei installation. After all, a t-shirt in the shop features an Ai Weiwei quotation, “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”

On a table, a grouping of plastic crabs tagged, “Inspired by Ai Weiwei’s River Crab Banquet $12.95 each,” taunts me. How should I read their presence in the gift shop? In China, the word for river crab is a homophone for harmony and a euphemism for censorship and control. The Chinese internet slang is bubbling with river crab puns such as “Ai Weiwei is river-crabbed.”

Ai WeiWei river crabs and AGO shop crabs.I’m puzzled and confused – similar to what gallery goers must have felt a hundred years ago when they saw Duchamp’s urinal or bottle rack for the first time. I ask myself, is Ai Weiwei commenting on the artwork’s loss of uniqueness in the age of reproduction? Then, slowly, I realize the crabs are not part of Ai Weiwei’s He Xie piece in the other room and the gift shop is not an installation. The cash register is real and so is the salesperson.

I know gift shops are a necessary evil and I even appreciate some of their products, but they are a firm reminder that art is a commodity and the AGO’s gift shop drives the message home. Its web site encourages: “Ai Weiwei Inspired Product. Shop Now!”

Ai WeiWei soccer ball and AGO toy version.The gift shop sells souvenirs and trinkets like Panda Bear Ear Buds, Boy and Girl Chop Sticks, and books such as Weiwei-isms. Ai Weiwei has created exclusive products for the AGO. For your convenience you can buy Aiflower items online – a pencil, a pin, a notebook, a fridge magnet and a t-shirt. It’s the first time his studio has entered into a retail partnership with a hosting gallery.

The plastic Bucky ball Oball toy (referring to Ai Weiwei’s Divina Proportione, F-size piece) dumped in a bin, feels like a goofy marketing afterthought for the child art patron, as does the Koi Toy plastic fish.

Ai WeiWei study in perspective and AGO umbrellas.There are three open umbrellas affixed to the wall. Each canopy has the image of ‘the finger’ on it. It refers to a series of Ai Weiwei’s photographs entitled, Study of Perspective: Eiffel Tower, Paris France, Whitehouse, Tiananmen, Fountain of Light in Left-Right Studio, Beijing, China, Colosseo Rome, Italy (1995-2003).

In the photographs, Ai Weiwei gives empires and colonialists ‘the finger’. In the gift shop, the finger on the umbrella canopy, flippantly flipping the weather, diminishes the artist’s original work. Enough said. Go see for yourself. Ai Weiwei would want you to.

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– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Elizabeth Cinello

More Ai WeiWei in Toronto

Nathan Phillips Square: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Bronze world tour, until September 22, 2013.

Nuit Blanche, October 5, 2013 at Nathan Phillips Square: A new edition of Ai WeiWei’s Forever Bicycles consisting of 3,144 bicycles.  Runs to October 27, 2013.