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Thousands of hand-painted river crabs will appear at the only Canadian showing of Ai Weiwei: According to What? It opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario Aug. 17.

Cathy Carver

"Ai Weiwei: According to What?" opens next week at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and it's going to be huge, on a scale befitting the world's most populous nation and the issues facing it, by one of China's essential artists.

This is the first major survey of Ai Weiwei's career ever to tour in North America, and it arrives for its lone Canadian showing with a staggering inventory of materials. The 56-year-old Chinese dissident has used hundreds of kids' backpacks, thousands of porcelain crabs, an entire wall bearing more than 5,000 names and 38 tons of rebar, the steel rods that are supposed to reinforce concrete foundations. He did not send the 85-million porcelain seeds he once displayed at Tate Modern in London.

The AGO show will include photography, installations and video, but the big sculptures will likely attract most of the attention. They are simultaneously elusive and frank in meaning, and thanks to their enormity, they are inescapably confrontational. Is the work as openly critical of China's Communist government, now in its seventh decade of iron-fisted rule, as it seems? Perhaps not, since Ai Weiwei isn't sharing a prison cell with his only domestic rival for international stature – the incarcerated poet and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo.

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Yet Ai has still paid dearly for challenging Chinese authorities, especially since his high-profile efforts on behalf of victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2009 he was assaulted by police and nearly died from a brain hemorrhage. In early 2011, his Shanghai studio was demolished in a petty act of punishment. Then, starting in April of that year, the artist was detained for 81 days without being charged. And finally, he was presented with a hefty bill for back taxes, although the bill was probably a penalty for his activism.

His work embraces one Chinese reality in particular – the gigantic. China has always been out-sized, from its teeming population and its continental dimensions to its massive feats of engineering, both infrastructural and social. It has always required the longest walls and biggest dams and cities that shelter 20-million residents, yet still function.

China sees its realities as singular, and the rest of the world can't really appreciate its challenges. That exceptionalism applies as well to the relationship between the individual and the collective; critics who complain about the dehumanization and, often, outright cruelty of Chinese governance don't know how difficult it is to oversee 1.3-billion citizens and maintain stability.

Understanding how Ai engages and ultimately critiques this core self-conception sheds light on the outraged-humanism of his art. It also explains why he poses such a vexing problem to officials who are clearly unsettled by his confrontations, and unsure what to do about him.

Recently, the gregarious Ai, who lived in the United States in his mid-20s and once travelled the world to exhibit his work, has been barred from leaving China, and his studio-home in Beijing is under constant surveillance. While his legendary outspokenness has occasionally wavered, lately he has reasserted his core values via the media, principally Twitter and YouYube.

Most of those values, tellingly, are more civic than artistic. According to What? isn't the outpouring of a disaffected imagination or an aesthetic outsider. Rather, the exhibition showcases an artist rooted in his own culture's precepts, and determined to engage them.

Like it or not, Ai Weiwei couldn't be more Chinese in his thinking. And he couldn't be more patriotic in his concern for his country – especially, perhaps, when he is at his most outraged, such as in the short video he made in the wake of the police assault. "F– you, Motherland," he told the camera.

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His celebrated Sunflower Seeds, a 2010-11 installation using those 85-million hand-crafted porcelain seeds raked across the floor of the Tate Modern museum in London, isn't part of the Toronto show. Neither does According to What? feature exterior signage composed of 9,000 school backpacks, like a Weiwei exhibit in Germany.

But anyone who visits the AGO between August and October, or even passes by Toronto's city hall, where Ai's huge zodiac sculptures adorn Nathan Phillip's Square, will immediately note the scale.

Three examples from According to What? offer different takes on Ai's giganticism. Map of China, 2008 is a lean and gorgeous sculpture. The size of a small vehicle, the piece is a literal relief map of the nation, made of wood gathered from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples. The artist's team went so far as to employ traditional joinery techniques to assemble it.

As such, the sculpture might be simple praise for the unity and depth of Chinese civilization. But Ai Weiwei is a child of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the period of collective lunacy that preceded the nation's opening to the world. Typical of the madness were efforts by radicalized youth to obliterate all facets of "old culture," including reducing historic temples to rubble.

Ai's personal history, along with his propensity for intentionally smashing or distressing antique vases, invites another interpretation of Map of China, 2008: of the country as a dark, forbidding mass, conceived without adequate self-reflection from its destroyed past.

He Xie, or River Crabs, is less ambiguous but more whimsical. An impressive 3,000 painted porcelain river crabs crowd an inadequate space. The Mandarin title refers to the actual sea urchin. But he xie, a homophone for the word meaning 'harmonious,' is equally the term used by Chinese netizens for the oppressive government censorship and control of the Internet.

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Once the wordplay is explained, the sculpture becomes suggestive of claustrophobia and restriction, freedoms curtailed by brute force. The Beijing government, it is widely believed, employs an Internet surveillance army of as many as 50,000 people – another China-sized reality.

No ambiguity or wit is being evoked in the colossal Straight, 2008-2012. It relates to those 5,212 names on a nearby AGO wall that identify the school children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. (Snake Ceiling, featuring the backpacks, is another tribute to them.) Ai Weiwei, dismayed by the suppression of information about the tragedy, personally oversaw their collection.

Many of those children perished because corrupt contractors had built so-called "tofu" schoolhouses on the cheap. To eulogize the dead, Ai decided to recover and restore the actual steel rebar rods that had failed to protect the kids inside those buildings. The process behind the creation of Straight is staggering to contemplate.

The piece itself, approximately 12 metres long by six metres wide, is no less staggering. Sleek and minimalist, the painstaking arrangement of the steal rods traces the ground fissure that triggered the quake. The metaphorical fissure, however, is much wider, and lies at the heart of the dialogue Ai Weiwei wants to have with Chinese dimensions and values.

On how authorities handled the Sichuan earthquake, his position is specific: He will not abide coerced silence and forgetting, and he will supply evidence of what happened. If he has to fill a wall with names, and then have them spoken out loud in a recorded loop, he will. If he has to collect every piece of rebar from the crumpled schools' debris, he will. In Ai's art, the material is material indeed.

More broadly, Ai will not accept the excuse of Chinese exceptionalism. What value system exempts the modern rulers of the world's oldest civilization from treating their citizens fairly and decently?

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He rejects the supposed trade of political stability and, of late, economic prosperity for basic freedoms, and refutes the Chinese math that forever calculates in convenient favour of the collective over the individual.

Internally, Ai Weiwei wants his fellow citizens to better appreciate their individuality, and to demand the according rights. Internationally, he wants the world to know the same about his country – as per the Tate Modern exhibit, China is made up of many sunflower seeds, almost too many to count. And yet, each and every one has been hand-painted.

Practising humanism in China requires courage. A lionhearted artist, Ai Weiwei appears determined to escalate his confrontation with his obdurate government.

But if he continues to evade the fate of Liu Xiaobo, it will not be because of the international attention garnered from exhibitions like According to What? Ai Weiwei's standing as an out-sized citizen who critiques from a place of deep cultural allegiance and loyalty may prove his best armour.

Ai Weiwei will join AGO visitors for a live video chat with director and CEO, Matthew Teitelbaum, on Sept. 5, 2013. You can find more info and tickets here.

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