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Inaugurations bring out the hokey in the nation’s capital. Every day, the planners of the inauguration announce an official inauguration this or that: The official menu of the inauguration lunch, the official inauguration gifts of the American public to the president and vice president, and so on. There is much self-congratulatory celebration about US democracy, some justified, some perhaps a tad over-the-top. But one highlight of this days-long PrezFest is happening at night, just a few blocks from the Capitol steps where President Barack Obama will be sworn in for his second term on Monday. At the Newseum, the work of Ai Weiwei, the politically-minded Chinese artist (and dissident), is being projected onto the exterior of the museum, atop its permanent ten-story-high rendition of the First Amendment.
The art of Ai Weiwei, who helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is currently being featured in a marvelous and provocative retrospective at the Hirshhorn museum on the National Mall. With his art—sculpture, photography, and other media—Ai Weiwei has operated as a sharp social and political critic, often examining the abuse of power in China and elsewhere. As a payback, he has been detained, roughed up, and placed under surveillance by Chinese authorities—which has motivated him to produce more compelling art. (The Chinese government prohibited him from attending the opening of this exhibit in Washington.) “I’m just an undercover artist in the disguise of a dissident,” he says.
Well, this undercover artist, who maintains that artists ought to challenge “the will of the times,” has a featured spot in the run-up to this celebration of the American political system.