I had to write 800 words about an exhibition which isn’t very much so I thought I’d post it
The decision to have works from Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing workspace, Fake Design Studio, put in the Tuscan Galleria Continua stems from exactly the reasons Weiwei creates his art; voicing disdain for Chinese government and finding new ways to open up elephant-in-the-room topics regarding his home country. Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957, where he remained until 1981 to leave for New York. It was not until 1993 that he returned to Beijing where he still resides, constantly in conflict with authorities. When I was in the gallery, employees told us that this body of work was secret from China’s government and specially made for the Galleria Continua. Weiwei’s blogs had recently been closed down and his photography archives were confiscated (but relocated to the Galleria under the title 258 Fake, “a titanic work of documentation consisting of 7,677 photos taken between 2003 and 2011, which record the artist’s everyday life: work, encounters, moments of leisure, political and social engagement.”). I was absorbed by these pictures, on mounted screens, n the narrow maze-like corridors of the galleria. Whilst I got no-where near seeing all 7,677, I saw enough to both laugh and feel saddened by the eclectic nature of his pictures. Likewise, the gallery hosted a varied selection of his chosen works, from large-scale interactive works such as Very Yao and Stacked, to much more contemplative pieces such as Rebar 49 and Marble Helmet.
It was not unfamiliar work to when I witnessed his Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern a few years ago. This is the piece Ai Weiwei is best known for in Britain (besides possibly the Beijing Olympic Stadium) and it’s interesting to see as a Westerner; the mass-produced handcrafted seeds are an invitation to think of the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon. Old fashioned crafting techniques using porcelain, a material we often refer to as ‘china’, reminded me we should not forget China has a rich history and is more than the-place-where-the-stuff-comes-from. A curator from the Tate Modern, Julia Bingham, said of Sunflower Seeds that “The work continues to pose challenging questions: What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society?” Bingham, I think, is right to say this; Weiwei’s work seems to often cite the massive population of China as a problem wrought with complications that would have an effect on individuality and more importantly: freedom.
One of my favourite works there, Stacked, was very poignant about the subject of individuality. It was a piece that made me feel free and childish, despite most of its attributes: it’s a monolith of metal and mechanisms; all identical pieces formed into one single behemoth unit. The components that chain together are the standard issue fixed-gear bikes, making them likely the most common mode of transportation in China. These are common-place parts. The bikes have their seats and the handle bars removed; all comfort and self direction is stripped from it to ease the welding of 760 bicycles into one structure. Honestly I was very ignorant at first until the staff explained a lot of these things. I was enjoying too much standing inside of it and spinning the wheels – I hope that Weiwei would have anticipated initial reactions like mine. I think my early thoughts of delight made the reality of the piece more sombre, but they were still predictably ignorant of the reality of China. Ai Weiwei’s eyes are very open to things - I feel after some reflection, mine are slightly more so because of it.
Whilst researching more recent work, I found an article titled: Is Ai Weiwei still an artist? This article poses the argument that his activism and feuds with Chinese government are burying his art. Jonathan Jones, quite rightly, asks “Has his art vanished into the storm of polemic?” Jones leans away from this being the case. I think the question is raised subsequent of a media perspective and I certainly feel I have been presented Weiwei differently. I think it is often very hard to understand his art without first understanding his protests. For example two pieces I overlooked greatly, before gaining hindsight, were Rebar 49 and Marble Helmet. The first I remember dismissing and the second I barely remember seeing. However, now with context, I feel they are nothing less but ingenious. Rebar 49 is solitary iron reinforcement from the concrete walls that collapsed in the Sichun, 2008. It was presented alongside 2 cast replicas. It seems like a scathing attack on the civil construction programmes in China that care only for progress, and less so about well being. The casts, I assume, are to highlight the repeated failures that stem from this. Marble Helmet is a more optimistic view on the same topic. The high quality material juxtaposes the common-place working-person’s protective helmet; it is a shrine to people and how, as individuals, there are heroics to be found in huge volumes.
I feel that Ai Weiwei is an artist born of his circumstance and one the world certainly needs. He seems to stand alone against a huge political system, and I feel his work reflects it. I get a sense that his art looks at China from both the inside and out, and this unique view leaves his work resoundingly poignant.
Quotes by Julia Bingham and information on Sunflower Seeds: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds
Picture of Stacked and Galleria Continua press release .pdf in link which gave information about 285 Fake and details about all the other exhibitions: http://www.galleriacontinua.com/english/mostra.html?id_mostra=236
Further information about Stacked, i.e. model type: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2013/01/stacked-by-ai-weiwei-760-stacked-bicycles-at-galleria-continua/
Quotes from Jonathan Jones and picture of Ai Weiwei from The Arrest of Ai Weiwei: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/apr/24/ai-weiwei-still-an-artist