World Sculpture News
Vol. 15 No. 4 Autumn 2009
By Lucy Birmingham
"Ai Weiwei at Mori Art Museum"
Ai’s first large-scale solo show worldwide — reveals the multi-faceted nature of this artistic genius with 26 works made since the 1990s. Some controversial pieces are glaringly absent while six are new, like the work titled “Chandelier” hanging in the museum's entrance lobby. An oversized, half chandelier-like object, it is a satire on the bizarre Chinese state aesthetic.
One new work, titled “Snake Ceiling,” is a requiem for the children killed by collapsing school buildings during the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake — and his most recent merging of art and activism.
Officials refused to list the names of the dead students, so Ai formed the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project with researchers and volunteers who discovered the names of 5,190 students. (5,335 became the official government figure, listed possibly because of pressure from Ai's campaign.) Ai’s blog posts were systematically censored or deleted throughout his investigation. On May 29 his blog was shut down.
Ai’s activism was fostered during his childhood. His father, Ai Qing, who passed away in 1996 at age 86, greatly influenced him. One of China's esteemed poets, he was sent to labor camps in northern Heilongjiang Province and western Xinjiang Province for 20 years for criticizing the Communist regime. The family followed and lived in horrible conditions.
In 1981, at age 24, discouraged by the lack of free expression, Ai left China and lived in the U.S. for 12 years, mainly in New York City. There he learned about Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, whose painting “According to What” (1964) was the inspiration for his MAM exhibition title. Throughout his decade in New York City he took thousands of black and white photos now edited into a fascinating video showing at the exhibition.
Ai's interest in antiques led him to create metaphorical pieces like “Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo.” (1994), his famous photo triptych "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1995) and the Neolithic Age jars dipped in bright industrial paints titled "Colored Vases" (2008), all displayed in the exhibition.
“Map of China” (2006) is a 3D China map intricately assembled with Qing-dynasty wood from dismantled temples and traditional nailless joinery. A recent, engaging installation titled “Moon Chest” (2008), made of reassembled old chests that form the waxing and waning of the moon, reflects Ai’s architectural eye.
Although Ai said he is no longer interested in creating architecture, his 50-plus architectural works remain a central representation of his practice. At the MAM show, models, books, and postcards are on display, including the "Dog House,” Ai's first design proposal in Japan (yet to be built), for art patron Joni Walker.
“Ton of Tea” (2006) and a new, still fragrant work titled “Teahouse” (2009) are blocks made of compressed tea leaves that measure Ai’s fascination with shapes and materials. In tandem with this theme, also in the show, is his 2003 “Forever” bicycle installation assembled from pieces produced by a state factory called Shanghai Forever, once considered the must-have object of ’60s China.
Video and images from Ai’s historic 28-day journey with 1001 Chinese citizens to the 2007 Documenta 12 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, have been edited into a 150-minute movie titled “Fairytale,” showing for the first time at the exhibition. Although Ai was invited to Documenta to create an artwork, the journey itself became the work.
Ai is probably best known as the design consultant for the Beijing Olympics “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, a collaboration with Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. But Ai boycotted the Olympics as a propaganda machine, exercising what he called his “freedom of choice.” He said he doesn't want to be censored and that he doesn't care if he never has a show in China.