ARTIST: Ai Weiwei
MATERIALS: Reflective solar panel pieces, tea pots, steel
LOCATION: Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA (previously installed at Alcatraz)
Ai Weiwei presents viewers with a bird’s wing. The wing is made of used teakettles, round metal poles, weathered steel, bolts/washers, and old bristled solar panels. It currently sits outside a glass-paned art building, centered upon the grassy lawn at Whitman College.
Silver panels are used in Tibet to cook bread, meals and to boil water through solar power. The panels join to form a circle and have a long metal pole that sticks up from the concaved center. The end of the pole circles to hold the teakettles or pans. The panels are adjusted to face towards the sun, and the sun beats down onto the panels, which reflects heat upward and sizzles the bottom of the pots. Water can boil in about ten minutes using this simple method.
Without a solar cooker, people rely on wood or dried donkey dung to cook sustenance over a fire. However, the Chinese government has, apparently, put bans on collecting wood to protect forests.
Tibet is a region that has long toiled with Chinese rule and Ai Weiwei seems to be depicting this struggle by presenting us with a 5-ton bird wing that is inherently constructed to fly but cannot due to its mountainous weight. The bulk (or burden) of the weight comes from the ribbed structure that seems anatomized from a sci-fi creature -- a symbol of an oppressor. The items welded to these ribs (components of basic survival) are light – both corporeally and metaphorically. Decidedly, the pattern of the panels resembles feathers.
In contempt of the creature, these survival items foster hope (or, at least, a healthy dose of perseverance and/or moxie) as evidenced via:
the solar panel's power to “cook up”/muster collective energy
the sense of community engagement found in the inherent nature of sharing tea/drink that is evoked by the actual teakettles
the implied ephemeral and floating force of steam manufactured by boiling kettles and/or the mirage a panel might produce in the blazing sun
the wing itself seems slightly arched up and muscled where it connects to a body – as if ready (or willing) to take flight.
I spent about an hour with “Refraction” but need more time. I want to see it on a rainy day to watch the water splash, drip and mobilize helter-skelter off of it. And during a morning frost. And on a clear sunny day when the blue sky electrifies the panels. It was overcast the day I visited (which is rare for Walla Walla!) I lingered and hoped the clouds would change, but they seemed temporarily glued to their spot – like “Refraction” itself.
[I’d be remiss if I didn’t state this piece was initially a part of a larger exhibit on Alcatraz Island. The placement of “Refraction” on Alcatraz was within a low-ceilinged room surrounded by the guard’s gun gallery – a very different experience and context than on Whitman’s beautiful campus.]