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Ai Weiwei's "Five Houses" Needs More Guidance

Going in, Ai Weiwei's "Five Houses" seemed like an important exhibition. It marks the U.S. premiere of the Chinese artist's project, which debuted at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria, this past summer. It's the latest in a lineage of fully designed environments by noted architects such as Josef Hoffmann, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gerrit Rietveld.

It's one of several events around the city connected with Weiwei, coinciding with the opening of the new Asia Society Texas Center and the installation of his "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" in Hermann Park. And it's the first new architectural project since Weiwei, an outspoken political figure, was arrested and detained in his native China last year for "alleged economic crimes."

But instead of leaving "Five Houses," up now at the Architecture Center Houston, with a sense of its importance as a piece of art, I was more frustrated than anything.

The exhibition is comprised of a series of five different types of residential houses, all built around the repetition of shapes and certain shifts in direction. While a pamphlet and text accompanying the show sort of explained these different types of houses and approaches -- in impenetrable architecture jargon -- none of the actual scale models were labeled. I didn't know what I was looking at. Further adding to my confusion, the models were accompanied by blown-up renderings and diagrams on the wall inexplicably labeled "House A," "House B" and "House C." I could presume these houses correlated to the models, but I just didn't know. The exhibition didn't explain it.

The gist of the show is this -- these five scale models are just part of a larger project by Weiwei -- a contemporary interpretation of a residential building on which the artist is collaborating with other architects and furniture designers to create one, completely furnished "Ai Weiwei House."

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That right there seems to be part of the problem. These scale models are like the sketches of a painting or sculpture -- they're not the final product and have trouble standing on their own without a sense of the larger context (or labels, for that matter).

What would help is if the viewer had greater guidance so as to understand his place in the bigger picture. Right now, though, the exhibition either assumes a close familiarity on the viewer's part with Weiwei's work and architectural philosophy, or thought its limited materials sufficed to explain and connect the work. As a result, for those drawn in by the high profile of the artist, the experience likely will be more frustrating than illuminating.

Ai Weiwei's "Five Houses," at Architecture Center Houston, 315 Capitol, Suite 120, is showing now through May 25. There will be a presentation by the curator, Reto Geiser, on May 25 at 6 p.m., which may offer some of the guidance that's needed. For more information, call 713-520-0155 or visit www.aiahouston.org/ArCH.cfm.

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