Poetry Makes Nothing Happen: Thoughts on Ai Weiwei from the Indianapolis Museum of Art


Good Morning Hank, it’s Tuesday. I finished filming Crash Course US History early yesterday, so I drove down to the Indianapolis Museum of Art where Sarah is a curator. By the way, we have our own spring snow in Indianapolis. Walked into the museum then into the entry lobby, currently home to this installation by the great Spencer Finch called “Following Nature,” which Sarah curated and which abstractly recreates Monet’s famous “Garden at Giverny.” Upstairs, I went to visit “Ai Weiwei- According to What?” I think Ai Weiwei is probably the most important artist alive, and my wife, not to brag, is responsible for this show’s only tour stop in the Midwest. The show follows Ai’s entire career. He lived in New York from 1981 to 1993, hanging out with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, working as a photo journalist, taking many pictures of himself, and then he returned to China and worked in the artist community “Beijing East Village,” which included many Chinese performance artists who would later become wildly famous but you probably never heard of them, Hank, because this isn’t really your scene, and it’s kind of like trying to explain to someone how super famous and amazing DailyGrace is And they’re just like, “Oh, the girl from the Lowe’s commercials?” Anyway, Ai Weiwei went on to his Lowe’s commercial, consulting on the birds nest from the Beijing Olympics. Which you probably do remember. Although he later distanced himself from it, calling the entire affair, “A pretend smile.” Which, if you remember the Beijing opening ceremony, yeah. He has continued to take pictures of himself, including this one. when he was detained by the police and beaten so badly that he suffered a subdural hematoma. He uploaded that selfie to Twitter, by the way. Ai is primarily famous on Tumblr for flicking off important buildings. But his work is very broad, and as is often the case with contemporary art, it can be difficult to see what’s so interesting without context. Like, these sculptures, each is made with more than 2,000 pounds of pressed tea leaves, call to mind the minimalist sculptures of the likes of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. But Ai uses distinctly Chinese material, material that has long been imported by the West. What is being appropriated and by whom in these cultural and economic exchanges? Or look at this Neolithic vase painted with the Coke logo. Or this tryptic of Ai dropping a Han dynasty urn. How do we respond when confronted with the reality that the destruction of the old is inherent to creating anything new? These are interesting and important questions, both for art historians and for regular people, but by far my favorite work in the Ai Weiwei show Is this: 38 tons of steel rebar, arranged in undulating waves. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai went there and photographed the rescue efforts, the destroyed buildings, the awful clusters of backpacks belonging to dead children. Many blame shoddy construction by corrupt government contracters for the collapse of so many schools. More than 5,000 children died and Ai spear-headed the project to record their names. As you stand in the gallery, you hear those names read aloud. This is one of the saddest wall labels I’ve ever seen. Running time: 3 hours 41 minutes. All this steel is from destroyed schools. It was bent and buckled by the earthquake, and then Ai and his assistants hammered all of it, all 38 tons of it, straight again. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden once famously wrote. “It is a way of happening, a mouth.” Straightening this rebar didn’t bring back those children or hold the shoddy contractors accountable. It made nothing happen. But the way of happening threatens the Chinese government enough that they detain and threaten Ai Weiwei, because in a world supersaturated with tragic statistics, where even photographs and videos can lose their punch, Ai found a way to bring form to love and anger and grief. That’s why good art matters so much, Hank, and why it has always mattered. Even if it does make nothing happen. I’ll see you on Friday. *names of the children are heard echoing in the gallery*

100 thoughts on “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen: Thoughts on Ai Weiwei from the Indianapolis Museum of Art

  1. Hey Nerdfighteria!
    After being inspired by the amazing Hank and John, I've taken the big scary leap into starting my own channel! I've started a FOOD and TRAVEL channel that I hope you guys will enjoy! So if you have a moment, I would totally appreciate if you could take a quick peek over! Thank you and much appreciation in advance!! DFTBA!!

  2. I would give so much to be able to understand art enough to take something from it.

  3. :'( really sad, but as a previous ignorant of art, u have enlightened my view and now I am intrigued, so much so that I might find out about some art shows and take my kids to them. Which, I feel almost embarrassed to say, took a 3:44 minute YouTube video to convince me of something that I have snubbed most of my life. This is why I love you guys.

  4. Week by week my ignorance fades and I become a more aware and enthusiastic contributor…Thanks more than u know 🙂 xo

  5. #1075: It's videos like this that make me proud to be a nerdfighters Thanks Sarah for bringing this!

  6. i zoned out for a second and thought you were talking about yourself because you were say "ai"

  7. Just watched a documentary about him, truly an incredible artist.

  8. My parents and I are going on a short vacation we decided that Indianapolis would be a good place to go due to this museum. 😀 I really hope I can see this exhibit!

  9. I see your point, and Ai Weiwei's art is amazingly moving…

    But my inner archaeologist could only cringe at the coke symbol on that neolithic vase. I see his point, but, but… not the artefacts!!

  10. I love Hank and the Nerdfactor winners as much as the next guy, but videos like this, with their meaning and depth, make me increasingly excited for John's return. 🙂

  11. Yeah. His full name is short, so he might as well go ahead and use it to avoid that initial ambiguity.

  12. At like 2:38 I heard the voice in the background of the video but I thought someone was in my room and I got scared but then I realized it was just the video

  13. For those of you interested in Ai Weiwei, he has a documentary thats available on watch instantly on Netflix. It's called "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry".

    Just found it myself so I haven't watched it, but I just wanted to pass this around to you all.

  14. 2:32 when the voice came on I jumped up and turned around thinking my brother was scaring me..

  15. I was confused, too. Considering John's disposition and tendency to work with charities, I thought he was speaking of himself taking part in the project. It would make sense, since they both seem genuine and thoughtful about humanity.

  16. This is by far one of my favorite videos you have ever uploaded. I've watched it several times and it never fails to make me feel something.

  17. Yeah, that counfused me too and the sad part is the only reason I'm not confused right now is because your explaination:) DFTBA

  18. Just saw this exhibition in Toronto. It was truly a great and fascinating experience.

  19. One of my favourite vlogbrother videos ever. Beautiful, touching, art and dailygrace.

  20. I'm seventeen and if I walked trough that museum I'd totally laugh at first. I'd look at it like "Yeah, another super easy thing that you have to pay money for. Like, if I'd arrange a few bananas noone would pay to come see them." But I now could really see those things have a backstory. Not everytime the big name gets away with doing almost nothing and having stupid people admire it. Sometimes it has meaning. And I'll keep that in mind.

  21. I watched this when it was first uploaded, I thought it was incredibly moving and it made me stop and think for a while. Then I forgot about it. Last week while passing through Toronto I saw the name Ai Weiwei on a poster in front of the art gallery and suddenly remembered this video. Thank you, for if I had never watched this video I would never have stopped and gone into the exhibition and discovered the work of Ai Weiwei for myself.

  22. Sometimes when he said Ai, I had to remember for a moment he was talking about the artist, not himself.

  23. Just went to the Ai Wei Wei show. My friend recommended the show to me using this video lol. She told me that if it wasn't for Ai, then all those children would remain nameless. Apparently the government didn't even try to do any memorial for these children.

  24. Amazingly poignant video. Thank you for bringing the context of modern art into the discussion.

  25. the documentary on ai weiwei( never sorry) is worth everyone's time. political activism meets modern art meets the power of social media, so good.

  26. Thanks to this brief introduction to Ai Weiwei I have declared him as my research paper subject this semester.

  27. As an art history major with a focus in contemporary art I am SO SURPRISED I missed this, also that re-bar piece is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen… If your looking for nerdfighters to help with the new show LET US ART HISTORY MAJORS KNOW because, we like that stuff… a lot

  28. Remembrance makes me think of John Adams' On The Transmigration of Souls.

  29. Would be interesting to have a segment of vlogbrothers just for art related topics, perhaps even having Johns wife show up ^_^.

  30. I went to the According to What? exhibition today and it was so worth it. Though I was kinda pissed at the one jerk-ass who thought it'd be funny to smack one of the pieces (shown here at 0:29).

  31. I've been working on a graduate theatre thesis project revolving around art (specifically theatre) and politics for the past 5 months. I have also been struggling with the questions of "How do we know something has worked?" Thanks for reminding me that Ai Weiwei's portfolio holds some interesting keys and that my work is important. DFTBA.

  32. And now you will have it! John's wife Sarah is making her own PBS series on youtube called The Art Assignment, which will be begining early 2014, but you can go subscribe now and watch the intro video that is already up.

  33. this reminds me of next year ai weiwei doing a joint exhibition in new york along with swoon… and the thought that Soon challenges the idea of art making nothing happen because of her works..building earthquake proof sustainable architecture in haiti, the musical architecture in new orleans… those are projects that serve as foundations for things to continue to grow and form ecosystems

  34. Thank you for giving me a video to show for my seminar class on Tuesday, I hope they enjoy it as much as I did. I'm giving a presentation on Contemporary Chinese Art and had no where to even go with it. 

  35. Lovely video, great message. On an unrelated note my sister was almost born in that museum funny to see it again.

  36. This is my new favorite- along side the US healthcare bit.
    Ya know it's good when you want to force all of your facebook friends to watch it completely out of context like right now.

    You have a great way of explaining things that balances simplicity, relevance and entertainment. Also, it's only 4 minutes long and you knoooow I got other stuff to learn after this. heh

    Great show.

  37. I can't get enough of John talking about art. Seriously, just.. damn. I come from an art background and I've gotten away from it as I've gotten older. I need to go to more art shows <3 this was so lovely to watch!!

  38. I went on a school field trip to see the exibt when it was in Washington D.C. The saddest part was a snake, not shown here, made of hundreds of childrens backpacks.

  39. I would like to share that at ~ 1:22 you sated, "…Is particularly famous for FLICKING off important buildings…" From every source imaginable I've heard FLIPPING off is the correct term. I was also corrected not to long ago for saying FLICKING instead of FLIPPING. As an author and with obvious knowledge of the English language, why the mistake? Or is it a mistake?

  40. Aye Wei Wei is a photographer, which takes little talent, not an artist, which takes considerably more.

  41. Saw this exhibit in Toronto, on a school trip, the bars were my favourite too, and the wall of names…

  42. I had a rush hour 3 moment when you said "Ai went there and photographed the rescue effort" I initially thought "he did? that was committed of John." then I realized "I" was actually "Ai"

  43. YUSSSS AI WEIWEI IS THE BEST. art fangirls throughout the comments

  44. That was a great video.

     I was confronted with the truth about the Chinese construction industry a few years ago when doing some work for a company that makes strata bolts (the things that hold up tunnels and mines). They got a special commission to invent a bolt with a length that could be visually verified following installation. The reason for this was that the necessary length of bolt (from between 50cm to 6 meters) was determined by a structural/mining engineer. The bolts were however fitted by contractors who were paid a fixed amount for the job. Since the longer the bolt, the harder and longer it took to fit they would often use the shortest bolts they thought they could get away with. This resulted in dozens of collapses and thousands of deaths even without the assistance of earthquakes. Schools aren't the only things built shoddily in China in the name of greed.

  45. Political criticism posing as 'art' posing as edgy superfluous stuff still doesn't count as real art. Sorry. This stuff is just a flash in the pan, it won't endure.

  46. I've watched this "Thoughts from" vid several times and it always make me pause and think about the decisions we make and how we react and communicate with one another without language but through art and how it has the power to change minds and as a result lives. It is these vids that I appreciate the most.

  47. John, have you ever seen Without Fear or Favor? It's a documentary on Ai Weiwei and if you appreciate his work, I would definitely watch it

  48. I don't give a shit about what pretentious meaning he is trying to convey. There is no excuse for the destruction of artifacts.    

  49. I have watched this video over and over. I am touched every time I watch it. I show it to my college class. Thank you!

  50. I want John Green to narrate all audiotours in all museums in the entire world. (I realize that that may be just a tiny bit optimistic, but I would honestly love to have a museum visit with John Green commentary(

  51. This video is great, although the fact that "I" and "Ai" sound the same makes John's commentary confusing at times.

  52. I was surprised to find out that this is one of the vlogbrothers least watched videos because it is one of my favorite (ok favorite is a relative term because I love most of their videos).

  53. Droping the ancient vase.. No matter how strong of a message it conveys.. Is not art. I do love the steel and the children names (for me that is art). I get the meaning behind the dropping of the vase, buy i just cant stand the idea of a person destroying an ancient artifact

  54. I was fortunate enough to see this exhibit while it was here at the IMA–didn't know that your wife was responsible for bringing it here! That's awesome!

  55. Ai Weiwei is a cool guy although I can not agree with him deliberately destroying a historical artifact. It's disgusting.

  56. I am from mainland China. And I never seen any show or museum dedicated to the dead in the Sichuan Earthquakes

  57. I kinda thought the thumbnail looked like 3 people frozen in carbonite at first…

  58. i watched this video when i was in highschool and it made me study art in university. thank you

  59. This made me cry when I first watched and now again a few years later.

  60. I remember showing this to a friend 4 years ago, and it's still my favorite vlogbrothers video today

  61. "That's why good art matters so much, Hank, and why it has always mattered. Even if it does make nothing happen."
    Amazing.

  62. I feel so stupid! Somewhere in the middle of the video I forgot that the artists first name was Ai which when pronounced sounds like 'I'. So I thought John was saying that 'I went to the earthquake site and created this art and spearheaded the children's name thing!' and I was all like, Wow! Is there anything John cant do! But then I realised he was saying 'Ai did this…' 🙈😕😌 So feeling a bit dumb right now.

  63. "The destruction of the old is inherent in the creation of the new"

    Maybe with physical creations, but what about ideas and books and poems and movies and etc.?

  64. To this day this is one of my favorite Vlogbrothers videos. Thank you, John.

  65. I come back to this video at least once every year. You do a great job of explaining in layman's terms why context and art itself is so important. I think all people who dont "understand art" need to watch this video. Can't believe it only has 300,000 views, very underrated.

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