Ai Weiwei, Rock, 2009-2010.
Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de meuron: Bird’s Nest. National Stadium, Beijing, China. 2004-2008.
Ai Weiwei’s photo of a surveillance camera set up by the authorities outside his house in Beijing, posted on the artist’s blog in June 2009.
Ai Weiwei, Hanging Man, 1985.
Ai Weiwei: Tree, 2009-2010.
Ai Weiwei, Table With Two Legs on the Wall, 1997.
De Pont Museum
+ 31 (0)13-5438300
March 3-June 24, 2012
By LOTTE PHILIPSEN
One of the Ai Weiwei’s works consisted in sending 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany (Fairytale, 2007); he once filled London’s Tate Modern with 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds (Sunflower Seeds, 2010); and he designed the Olympic Stadium in Beijing — to mention just a few of Ai Weiwei’s artistic accomplishments. Add to that his social engagement that led to his detention in China for almost three months in 2011. On •ArtReview•’s latest list of the most powerful names in the art world, Ai Weiwei is number one.
Ai’s work is hard to pigeonhole because he goes across traditional boundaries, both in terms of his artistic media and his role as an artist. To look at his artistic media first, Ai seems to work in a broad spectrum of seemingly familiar art forms, such as photography, sculpture, installation, and so on. But more than anything, his way of doing it conceives all these genres together in an overall conceptual practice, where the art form immediately encountered by the audience, e.g., photography, always turns out so strongly to indicate other art forms, such as craft or performance, that it would be more accurate to define Ai as a multimedia artist.
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (which is not in this exhibition but was shown in the Louisiana Museum’s 2007 Made in China exhibition) is by any measure a tightly composed triptych of photographs with a powerful visual simplicity that is impressive in a pictorial work, but the three photos, actually, are only a small part of the work. In its entirety, the work involves 1) Ai holding a Han dynasty urn in his hands and, as the title states, 2) dropping the urn, which 3) shatters against a tile floor. In the work, a choreographed, cinematic, and performative narrative fuses with the static photographs, giving them a distinct temporal dimension. Examining the work’s formal structure, concepts taken from the world of theater, film, or literature, such as “staging,” “dramaturgy,” “editing,” “narrative structure,” and “rhythm” seem more relevant than strictly art terms, such as “perspective” and “composition.”
The work’s interdisciplinary, medial structure, however, on a formal level is closely connected to the semantic implications of the title. A 2,000-year-old urn must be considered a significant arthistorical object of the kind we would normally treasure and handle with care. Should such an object break, it would be as the result of an unfortunate accident or uncontrollable vandalism. However, as Ai’s cool gaze into the camera and his calm posture make clear to the viewer, this is a deliberate act. The simplicity of the physical act itself, underscored by the simplicity of the work’s formal structure, is thus combined with a layer of meaning of almost immeasurable cultural complexity, raising a number of questions about the relevance of traditional Chinese culture in a contemporary context. This, precisely, is how Ai goes across artistic media: a fearless, devil-may-care way of combining a concrete material with the staging of that material and the semantic cultural references that adhere to the material, making the works, as overall constructions, seem both ingenious and strikingly simple. That goes for all the works in this show: Forever, Fountain of Light, Tree, Rock, and Hanging Man in Porcelain.
In that sense, it may be more meaningful to define Ai’s artistic move as a form of radical remixing. Like a DJ on his computer ripping sound bites from existing material and mixing them into new tracks — a bass line from here, a guitar riff from there, a violin piece played backwards — Ai appropriates cultural references and concrete materials and recombines them in new ways.
Exhibition Ai Weiwei (Beijing, 1957) has to a rare degree alternated in his practice between traditional physical artworks, conceptual projects, social activities, design and architecture. This has given his oeuvre the character of a compass that registers the currents of the age in art globally, and stimulates discussions of the role of art in his native China.
He expresses himself in a distinctive, simple formal idiom, in a dialogue with factual history and personal memory. His art relates to the universal human condition and insists on respect for the individual.
By using traditional Chinese materials and craftsmanship as well as modern industrial technology, Ai Weiwei’s works not only reflect and thematize the main currents of the twentieth century — its dreams and monuments; at the same time they attempt, like all living art, to leave a mark in the eternally flowing present.
The exhibition, co-organized with the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, will include large, striking works: Forever, 2003, Fountain of Light, 2007, Trees, 2009-2010 and Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 2010, as well as a number of films.
Forever, the earliest work in the exhibition, has connections back to the artist’s fascination with the father-figure of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp. 42 bicycles of the "Forever" brand, the favourite means of transport of the Chinese for decades, have been ingeniously stacked in a cylindrical tower, a "cycle" that goes nowhere, since all the handlebars and pedals have been removed.
Fountain of Light is a shining seven-metre tall crystal tower. The work refers to the Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin’s (1885-1953) never-finished tower, created for the Third International in 1919 during the Russian Civil War.
Trees, consists of trunks and branches slotted together from individual pieces of Chinese camphorwood. Individually they stand there without growing, but in the assembled form they unfold impressively and transform dead matter into a metaphor of growth and life. Next to the trees there are two '"ock formations", Rocks, independent works in porcelain, forming an overall installation that challenges the viewer’s idea of the archetypical Chinese.
The exhibition also includes a selection of Ai Weiwei’s films in the documentary genre, showing how the artist works as an activist.
Ai Weiwei, Forever, 2003.
Ai Weiwei, Fountain of Light, 2007.