Ai Weiwei’s Bowl of Pearls
When we were in Washington DC last month visiting family, on our way back from Mount Vernon one day we all went to the Hirshhorn Museum (a Smithsonian joint) to see Ai Weiwei’s recent exhibit and installations. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me, and I’m not generally a huge modern art fan. But Ai works in so many different media and has such a different style than most contemporary artists whose work I’ve seen that I stayed interested and focused on everything I saw.
I snapped a few shots of some of the pieces I really liked while we were in the Hirshhorn. I know taking photos of people’s art is kind of weird – I mean, it’s not like I can add anything to the discussion, or whatever, but I like being able to interact with art in that way. I like the textures and the patterns; I like seeing how people move around art museums; and I like being able to remember the pieces that really do something for me later. Here’s my favorite of his Zodiac installation.
Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac installation
After we left the museum, and in the days following, I kept thinking about what I’d seen and experienced. Looking over my photos from our trip, the one at the top of this post popped out at me again and again. I know that the artist’s intent when making a piece can have a small or a large impact on how an audience views it, and I think the intent with this giant bowl of pearls was to show that when something rare and precious is surrounded by like things, its worth diminishes; each pearl becomes much like another. But that’s not how I see the piece.
A pearl is a beautiful object made by a water-dwelling creature to protect itself from harm. Nacre is something that bivalves use to coat irritating objects that might get inside a shell: bits of sand, shell, parasites. Layer after layer is added until the object is no longer uncomfortable, no longer damaging. And the resulting pearl shines with a radiant luster. I keep thinking about that giant bowl of pearls (all man-made, I’m sure, and pearls are not very expensive in China; I know because I’ve bought pearls there). Each one was formed around an intentionally-placed irritating object inside of an oyster who only wanted to filter plankton or whatever it is oysters do in peace. Each one is beautiful, something good to come out of something bad. Something uncomfortable wrapped over and over until it is no longer irritating.
Once, when I was in college, I was with my boyfriend and a group of his friends and their significant others. We were all camping at the beach, and one of the single people there was hyperactive, could not stop moving or talking or laughing. He seemed to work himself up into a tizzy, and my first inclination was to sigh and inwardly groan about spending the rest of the camping trip putting up with his behavior. But suddenly I realized there was something I could do that would help, and though I didn’t especially like him at the time (and knew I had no interest in him in any way other than possibly, potentially, as a friend) I decided to give him a hug. I went over to him and put my arms around him and just stayed that way for several minutes. I physically felt him relax in my arms, like my hug was stabilizing him and bringing him back to earth, able to center himself again. He took a deep breath, and when I let him go and looked at his face he looked like a different person. Thank you, he said. Of all those people, many of whom I lived with at one point or another, he is the one person I still consider a good, close friend. You never know, with people or with situations. They can be irritating and annoying, and if you wrap them in layers of something, they turn out to be beautiful.