I wouldn't have thought to connect Ai Weiwei and Fred Wilson until recent encounters with their wonderfully subversive works made me realize that some serious and similar disruption was afoot at two venerable New York City repositories of art and history, because these two artists have chosen to stake their careers upon refusing to let things be. And the stories of art, history, and our present time are better for it.
I'm referring to Ai's wonky pieces of non-functional furniture included in the Met's Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China and to Wilson's searing, absurd installation, Liberty/Liberte (2011) at the New-York Historical Society.
Ai's Stool (c. 2007) and Table with Two Legs (2004) were cleverly displayed in the Met's staid reconstruction of a historical Chinese scholar's hall. Like the artist himself, they were unruly interlopers in the room. Composed of two stools awkwardly conjoined into one, Stool practically dared viewers to attempt to sit on it, while Table looked like a colt, about to kick itself off of the wall with its upraised hind legs. To make these pieces, Ai utilized traditional Chinese woodworking techniques, which he promptly turned on their head. Through this deformation, he comments on the debasement of the individual, the deliberate, and the legacy of craft and the handmade in contemporary China, mass market factory for the world.
Wilson's Liberty/Liberte, displayed front-and-center in the lobby of the Historical Society, greets arriving visitors. It is the result of what the artist has been doing so beautifully throughout his career: mining the collections of museums to concoct installations and exhibitions that puncture holes in idealized historical narratives with ugly realities. In this work, he focuses on slavery. An over-the-top marble pedestal holds an odd assortment of objects, among them a cigar store caricature of a black man, busts of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, and, most tellingly, slave shackles and metal badges inscribed with their menial household and farmstead positions. Here is the subtext, in visual form, to liberty and freedom for all: except some.
Ai and Wilson wield art's power to change the narratives that become our understanding of the world, of the way things were and should be. They are doing essential work.