The first installation of the first North American retrospective of Ai Weiwei, “According to What?,” closed Feb. 24 at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, and the show reopens Apr. 5 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. While the critical appraisal of the exhibition focused on the significance of the work or the artist’s high profile as a dissident, beneath the radar was the activity in the Hirshhorn gift shop. It’s not uncommon for museum exhibitions to offer hard cover or soft cover options for exhibition catalogues, but the Hirshhorn did it with a twist: book or magazine, each with the same content. The magazine sold for $5 a copy, compared to the $40 hard cover edition. The result was over 9,000 magazines sold, far more than the number of catalogues that usually sell for any given show.
While the artist is possibly most widely known for his critique of the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake in Sichuan Province, Ai’s work involves a much broader inquiry into Chinese identity. The great building boom of the last couple of decades has dismantled temples and destroyed elements of cultural identity. Ai works with the recovered cultural artifacts, like Colored Vases, 2007-2010, which consists of 16 Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) urns dipped in latex paints. The works also applies traditional Chinese carpentry techniques, joining wood with what looks like dovetail and splice joints. The catalog’s cover image, China Log, 2005, shows such craftsmanship. The 11½-foot-long “log” consists of eight traditionally joined pillars reclaimed from dismantled Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples. The pillars wrap around a hollow that runs the length of the log. The hollow is shaped like the Chinese country’s outline. The catalog cover image also takes a subtle jab at the country’s quest for modernity: the focal length of the camera blurs the complex outline of the country’s shape on the opposite side of the log, resulting in the bright silhouette of Mickey Mouse glowing through the center of a hollow China.
“The magazine was produced with accessibility rather than profit in mind. The goal was to cover the cost of production,” stated Deborah Horowitz, director of curatorial administration and publications at the Hirshhorn.
The high number of magazines sold didn’t seem to discourage book sales. “We sold over 1,000 hardcover catalogues,” said Horowitz. Depending on the exhibition, the Hirshhorn might sell 300 to 1,000 hardcover catalogues.
This wasn’t the first time that a magazine was produced in conjunction with one of Ai’s exhibitions. In 2009, his “So Sorry” at Munich’s Haus der Kunst was accompanied by a 128-page magazine, which sold for $3.
The magazine will follow the exhibit to Indianapolis. According to Katie Zarich, the deputy director for public affairs at Indianapolis Museum of Art, they’ll sell the same one produced by the Hirshhorn. “We’ve produced publications for exhibitions in a number of formats, but to my knowledge, none quite like this,” she added.
It as also the first magazine produced for an exhibition at the Hirshhorn. “The model may not work for all exhibition catalogues,” confessed Horowitz, citing concerns about the potential effect on hardcover sales, and the additional funding required to produce the edition.
The Hirshhorn feels confident that magazine sales of “According to What?” will do well throughout the tour’s five venues. What they didn’t factor in was a need to reprint the magazine-it sold out in Washington. With that kind of success, Horowitz reflected, “We will definitely consider [printing magazines] in future. It was wonderful to know that the book and the show reached so many visitors.”