INDIANAPOLIS — If you see "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, you likely will leave pondering human existence. Or at least politics.
The first major retrospective in North America of the famous Chinese artist-dissident features 30 or so pieces — most of them installations.
There are plenty of photographs as well. In one room outside the exhibition galleries, 12 monitors show continuously more than 8,000 digital photographs taken by Ai, documenting his life.
Inside the exhibition galleries there are more photographs, among them a large triptych: "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1995/2009) showing Ai holding and dropping to the floor 2,000 years of cultural tradition and legacy.
And on one gallery wall are more than 40 smaller black-and-white photographs taken by Ai when he lived in the United States, mainly New York City, from 1981 to '93. He seemed to always be in the thick of things.
Spanning more than 30 years, the art explores topics such as culture, history, politics, tradition and change, all in the 55-year-old Ai's inimitable, sometimes humorous style.
Last week, on their first trip to Indianapolis, retired teachers Howard and Mary Cook of Traverse City, Mich., were "thrilled" to discover the Ai exhibit at the art museum.
They had just seen at a movie theater back home the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," which plays continuously as part of "According to What?" in Indianapolis.
Mary Cook called the exhibition fascinating and revelatory and said she admires Ai's courage and determination to make a difference in his homeland, as well as his constant use of social media such as Twitter.
Wendy Komocsar, a research scientist in Indianapolis, also loved "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" because Ai is "provocative and makes you think.
"I love his irreverence," she said. "There are so many prohibited people in China, and, of course, we have free speech here. To me it's so interesting to think about how prolific he is under that situation."
Apparently for his outspokenness, Ai famously spent 81 days in Chinese jail in 2011. No charges were filed; officials alluded to allegations of economic crimes or tax evasion. The government now does not allow him to leave China.
In 2009, Chinese police beat Ai when he attended the trial of a friend who, like him, was investigating the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It left thousands of school children dead after school buildings collapsed because of their shoddy construction.
As a result of the police beating, Ai suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and underwent emergency brain surgery at a hospital in Munich, where he was to have an exhibition of his work. "According to What?" includes "Brain Inflation," a large print of the MRI scan of his injured brain.
Near it is "Survellance Camera" (2011), built of white marble. There are 15 real surveillance cameras in Ai's studio in Beijing, and he is aware of them, according to Elinor Hanasono, a volunteer guide who led a tour of the exhibit last Friday.
Also in the same gallery is "Straight," a floor installation featuring nearly 40 tons of steel rebar that had been mangled by the Sichuan earthquake and later hammered straight by workers hired by Ai.
On the wall across from "Straight" is "Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens' Investigation" (2008-11). On it are the names and other data, all in Chinese, related to the Sichuan earthquake victims. A recording of volunteers reading the names plays continuously in the gallery.
Not all of the art in "According to What?" refers to events or politics. For example, "Moon Chest" (2008) is made up of seven large chests crafted by artisans from huali (quince) wood, using joinery techniques and no nails.
In the upper and lower panels on each side of the chests Ai carved holes, precisely placing each one slightly differently so that when viewed they create the effect of showing every phase of the moon.
And with "Kippe" (2006), made of gymnastic parallel bars and iron wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the artist harkens back to his childhood in the remote Xinjiang region. His father, a renowned poet, was sent there to be "re-educated" during the Cultural Revolution.
"Kippe" resembles a beautifully and tightly built stack of firewood.
"During the Cultural Revolution, there was always a set of parallel bars and a basketball hoop in every schoolyard," Ai has said. Also, neighbors would stop to admire the neat stack of firewood outside his family's home.
Stylistically, Ai, who is 55, tends toward minimalism. That bent is apparent in several pieces, among them "Cube in Ebony" (2009), a cubic-meter sized cube carved of rosewood to resemble the small wooden box (also on display) that Ai inherited from his father.
Ai's far-reaching work also is depicted literally in both the entrance and exit foyers of the exhibition galleries.
In the entrance, large-scale photographs of the 2008 construction of the Beijing Olympic "bird's nest" stadium, which Ai designed with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, cover the walls, floor and ceiling.
Likewise covering the exit foyer are large-scale "Provisional Landscapes" (2002-08) — color photographs of the intermediate, seemingly wholesale stages of demolition and construction of buildings in China.
"Ai Weiwei: According to What?" was organized by the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in collaboration with the artist. After it premiered at the Mori in 2009, the exhibition was re-conceived for the North American tour to include more recent works and to reflect changes in Ai's life.
"I've experienced dramatic changes in my living and working conditions over the past few years, and this exhibition has been an opportunity to re-examine past work and communicate with audiences from afar," he said. "I see it as a stream of activities rather than a fixed entity. It is part of a continual process in self-expression."
If you go
What: "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" — a survey of the Chinese dissident artist's work spanning more than 30 years
When: Through July 21
Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road
Admission: $12 for adults; $6 for children ages 7 to 17; free for museum members and children 6 and younger (general museum admission is free, but parking is $5 per car)
Museum hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays
Information: 317-923-1331; http://www.imamuseum.org