Cause célèbre on Capitol Hill

Ai Weiwei's 'Divina Proportione' (2006), left, and 'F-Size' (2011) against a background of images of the 2008 Beijing Olympic stadium

It’s election season in the United States and even the art world is turning to matters political. Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra and Jasper Johns have all donated work, under the banner of “Artists for Obama”, to raise money for his re-election campaign, and Chuck Close is offering 10 large-scale tapestry portraits of the President for $100,000 a pop. But in general there is little of the enthusiasm in contemporary art circles that met the 2008 election. In a sign of the times, Shepard Fairey, the artist whose “HOPE” poster became a ubiquitous image for the first Obama campaign, was recently found guilty in court of destroying evidence in a copyright battle over that very work.

One of the few high-profile political shows in the country at the moment is Jonathan Horowitz’s scrupulously non-partisan, multi-museum installation, “Your Land/My Land: Election ’12”. Horowitz has created red and blue zones in museums in New York, St Louis, Houston, Raleigh, Savannah, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, in which he hopes politics can be discussed by art-goers. The project is notable for its absence in Washington, DC, but then again politics and art have rarely made for easy bedfellows in the nation’s capital.

When the Houses of Congress were being expanded in the 1850s an allegorical bronze figure of “Freedom” was commissioned to stand atop the dome of the Capitol. The sculptor originally depicted her wearing a liberty cap, the sign of an emancipated slave in ancient Rome. However, southern congressmen saw this as an explicit criticism of slavery and demanded it be removed: “Freedom” was eventually hoisted into place wearing not a cap of liberty but a military helmet.

Not much has changed. In 2010, Republican congressmen demanded that the city’s National Portrait Gallery be closed because it included a video work that depicted ants crawling over a crucifix. The show remained but the offending artwork was quickly pulled. As Lisa Gold, the executive director of the non-profit Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) explains, “The industry in DC is politics. It’s not about art here.”

At the WPA, Gold does her best to foster a small but thriving contemporary art scene that works within the Washington landscape, creating temporary installations and performances that play off the city’s martial statuary and political parades. One of the WPA’s current shows, Nina Katchadourian’s Monument to the Unelected (2008-2012), is situated in the windows of the Washington Post offices and takes the form of a collection of signs for every political party ticket that came second in a presidential election. Using the eminently disposable materials of election road-signage, this barrage of quasi-familiar names – Walter Mondale, John Quincy Adams – seems designed to cause double-take whiplash among the political wonks passing by.

Outside the WPA umbrella contemporary art does exist but the strained economics of art in the capital mean that it is often found less in galleries than in people’s homes. Such is the case with Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art, founded by a former foreign correspondent for CBS News. Here, in Krause’s converted apartment, you can find shows by non-conformist Soviet artists from the 1970s or refugees living illegally in the US, many discovered during his time in the field.

Gold admits contemporary art is hard to find in DC, “because the larger institutions are so much more visible”. By this she means the Smithsonian Institution, the giant, government-funded conglomeration of 19 museums and institutions most of whose giant stone edifices line the National Mall.

Despite this abundance the Smithsonian has lacked a cutting edge. With government funding of the arts a favourite Republican target – Mitt Romney has repeatedly called for their termination – the threat of withdrawal “makes the arts in DC much more conservative in general,” says Sophie Gilbert, associate arts editor at The Washingtonian magazine.

Now, however, with uncharacteristic brio the Smithsonian’s outpost for modern and contemporary art, the Hirshhorn Museum, is hosting a sprawling retrospective of the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose persistent calls for freedom of expression in China have made him an international cause célèbre.

This has come at a cost. In 2009 he was beaten so badly by Chinese police that he had to undergo emergency brain surgery. In 2011 his Beijing studio was bulldozed and he was imprisoned for 81 days without charge. Since then he has been placed under house arrest, accused of tax evasion and had his passport withheld. Such a political hot potato would seem anathema to the Smithsonian’s gently-gently approach.

But according to Kerry Brougher, the deputy director and chief curator of the Hirshhorn, Ai’s changed circumstances have in fact led to some strikingly new political work being added to the Hirshhorn version of the show (which originated in Tokyo in 2009). “Surveillance Camera” (2010) is an example of both Ai’s concerns and humour. A sculpture of a CCTV camera painstakingly carved out of marble, it not only acts as twisted hymn to the monumentality of China’s state surveillance, but also turns the tables on it; instead of it looking at us, we now look at it. Meanwhile, “Straight” (2008-12) continues Ai’s investigations into the corruption scandals that accompanied the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of children were killed when sub-standard school buildings collapsed. “Straight” consists of 38 tonnes of twisted steel rebar that Ai took from the disaster zone and painstakingly re-straightened and laid on their side to form a massive undulating landscape. The piece poignantly criticises the Chinese authorities’ whitewashing of the disaster, their cynical desire to imagine the bent metal straight again.

It is a powerful show, one that caused the Chinese embassy to voice its displeasure directly to the Smithsonian. Even so, it is hardly an unambiguous triumph for freedom of expression. In what seems an extraordinary measure for an arts organisation, the US State Department assigned a “senior adviser” to the Smithsonian in the run-up to the show. This adviser, Bea Camp, was a former consul-general to Shanghai. Although a State Department spokesperson claimed Camp was not involved in the Chinese embassy talks and “played no special role in this exhibition”, four months before the retrospective opened she was already lecturing on the topic, “Dissident Art at the Smithsonian – the Case of Ai Weiwei” at the Foreign Service Institute – a government training institution that aims “to advance US foreign affairs interests overseas”.

In an irony that Ai would surely appreciate, it seems his calls for artistic freedom have, like the statue of “Freedom” that sits atop the Capitol, been co-opted by Washington’s politicians and fitted with a military helmet. In DC, political art will always be trumped by the art of politics.

‘Ai Weiwei: According to What?’ runs to February 23;

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