As it veers more towards entertainment and chat fodder than artistic authenticity or gravitas, Ai Weiwei’s recent two-part work Hansel & Gretel is his latest attempt at participatory public art.
Broaching the topic of surveillance, the premise of the work is that every move is aerially recorded by a series of cameras after a walk through a disorienting dark tunnel. The images are registered and shown below the feet of the participants (with occasional infrared outlines to imply invisible voyeuristic analysis), while drones simultaneously fly overhead. Then, shifting from the observed to the observer, the second part of the Armory-located work has visitors watch themselves and others on iPads on a separate exhibition hall.
The second part does elaborate on the implications of surveillance through a comprehensive timeline of surveillance from Ancient Egypt through to today, as well as artists who have addressed it, such as Omer Fast and Julia Scher. However, it also brings up various tangential issues. Surveillance is anonymous and uncontrollable, but it also involves consent, coerced or otherwise: visitors are instructed to pause to be photographed, and the paid-for entrance ticket indicates that attendance is consent to have your image appear in any video display or reproduction of the work.
While the Big Brother theme does have heavy and serious connotations both historically and in contemporary times, it appears Weiwei’s iteration has been reduced from “threat to mildly educational fun,” reports The New York Times, who from on-site observations noted that Hansel & Gretel “encourages further variations on the snow-angel selfie, as visitors spread out on the floor and then rise, like Lazarus, leaving behind blurry images of themselves, which they rush to photograph.”
Reliant on the public to activate the work, Hansel & Gretel is a high-tech installation that is the result of a second collaboration with Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (they previously worked together on the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics). With the backing of the Armory and project curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Tom Eccles, it begs the question of whether this project is more a flash of privilege and opportunity from the outside than a valid socio-political statement. Or worse, revealing that the ominous proposition of blanket surveillance is being undermined by a growing desire to be watched – as evidenced by the public’s desire to be observed in an age of selfie obsession.
Hansel & Gretel runs until 6 August at Park Avenue Armory, New York, USA. For more information visit armoryonpark.com