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art review

Forever Bicycles, 2003. Media preview of the Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibit at the Art Gallery of OntarioFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

"Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts," Paul Simon once observed, and right now, on what could be called the pop art charts, China's Ai Weiwei is pretty much the biggest hero going, the toppermost of the poppermost.

Don't just take my word for it. In 2011, London's influential ArtReview magazine, in its annual Power 100 list, named Ai "the most influential art person in the world." Bigger than uber-gallerist Larry Gagosian. Bigger than Museum of Modern Art honcho Glenn Lowry. Bigger than mega-collector/Christie's proprietor François Pinault. Admittedly, Ai, who turns 56 this month, slipped to number three in 2012. Still, he and Germany's Gerhard Richter, at number six, were the only real practising artists in a Top 10 dominated by dealers, museum directors and curators.

Torontonians get the opportunity to taste and test the Ai hype beginning this weekend with the Art Gallery of Ontario's 10-week survey exhibition of Weiwei wares, nearly 35 pieces in total, titled According to What? It's the only Canadian stop in a five-city tour; the first-ever major Ai showcase in North America began last October at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and concludes at the Brooklyn Museum next spring.

The show originated four years ago at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo – but as that institution's chief curator, Mami Kataoka, said at the AGO media preview, much of its content has been changed to reflect the tortuous changes in Ai's circumstances since then. These include his brutal, nearly three-month incarceration by Communist authorities in spring, 2011, followed by what's generally believed to be a trumped-up charge of tax evasion; cranial surgery in Munich in September, 2009, after being beaten by Chinese police; the bulldozing of Ai's Shanghai studio in November, 2010; and the withholding of his passport, preventing any possibility of travel to places like Toronto and events such as According to What?

Still, even as his Beijing studio is under 24-hour surveillance by some 15 cameras, he perseveres – making art (he's a big presence at this year's Venice Biennale), blogging, Skyping and tweeting, receiving visitors, giving interviews. It's this use – courageous? foolhardy? – of digital technology and social media to tweak and circumvent state repression that, in part, makes Ai ubiquitous outside China – if not the most important or influential artist of the age, then at least its most emblematic.

Wandering through According to What? – the title, tellingly, is a lift from a Jasper Johns mixed-media work from 1964 – two things are immediately apparent: the size of the art works (many installations are big, even monumental) and their sensitive and spacious presentation (kudos here to AGO curator Kitty Scott and the Mori's Kataoka). What emerges is a certain sense of inevitability that, at some point in this century, the world's most populous nation, with a repressive government and an epoch-defining economy that's put the "mass" in mass production, would have to throw up a contemporary artist capable of resonating with Western sensibilities, and that his or her art would look very much like what's on view at the AGO. An art, in other words, that speaks to Chinese themes and issues, that references Chinese practices and materials (including ironwood, huali, tea, urns, three-legged stools, bicycles from Shanghai), but at the same time is shot through with a keen awareness of significant Western art movements of the past 100 years: Dadaism, Constructivism, Pop (Ai is nothing if not Warholesque in his genius at self-promotion and Factory-like methodology), Conceptualism, Arte Povera and Minimalism.

Take one of the exhibition's highlights, Straight. Weighing almost 40 tonnes and occupying some 72 square metres of floor space, it's one of several works inspired by the horrific 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the collapse of many buildings, including poorly constructed schools. Ai and his team recovered thousands of rebar rods from these schools, straightened them, then arranged their varying lengths into a vast carpet of rusted, corrugated steel. It's a powerful testimony to state indifference and to the young lives cut short; the topography of its undulations evoke both the fissures of the earthquake and the plotting of a seismograph chart. But you almost don't need this awareness to appreciate Straight since its orderliness and elegance recall the Minimalist installations of Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Richard Long. And Ai's use of found, repurposed materials rhymes with what Nigeria's El Anatsui brings to his monumental tapestries.

Leaving According to What?, passing through the obligatory themed gift shop, one can't help but think of Ai's contradictions and paradoxes: the unabashed self-aggrandizement and the selfless advocacy, the iconoclasm and the sensitivity to tradition, the sharp irony and the grim seriousness, celebrity in the West and in a cage in China, the courage of his convictions and the commodification of the emblems of those convictions. Perhaps another iconoclast, American, of course, offers the best framework for appreciating Ai. "Do I contradict myself?" wrote Walt Whitman more than 125 years ago. "Very well, then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)."

Ai Weiwei: According to What? is at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto through Oct. 27. Starting at noon on Aug. 18, more than 400 Torontonians who speak a Chinese dialect will gather at the gallery to speak aloud the names of the more than 5,000 students who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. From the gallery in Toronto, AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum will have a live Internet conversation with Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio starting at 8 p.m. on Sept. 5. A new edition of Ai's ready-made sculpture, Forever Bicycles (on view at the AGO) is being made for Toronto's Scotiabank Nuit Blanche Oct. 5. The AGO installation comprises 42 bicycles; the Nuit Blanche presentation has 3,144.