CHINA CONTEMPORARY ART RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITIONS
“Ai Weiwei absent”, organised by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), wrapped up on 29 January 2012 after a three-month-long run. It was the artist’s first solo exhibition in the Chinese-speaking world and contained works dating from 1983 to 2011.
Political or de-politicised?
The most notable part of the exhibition was what was not there: the artist. The title “Ai Weiwei absent”, which was chosen by Ai and the museum when first planning for the survey, took on new meaning when the artist was detained for 81 days in the spring of 2011. He was arrested on his way to Taipei to work on the show.
In the exhibition, the presence of the artist is not necessary. An exhibition is articulated a single time through the completion of the artworks. To be absent from the exhibition is a kind of test. I feel we are all ethnic Chinese. We have a common cultural background, and also in today’s political environment we have many problems that overlap with each other. I do not feel that my absence will have any impact on the exhibition itself. If my absence influences the exhibition, then it explains that this absence is necessary. Absence itself is the current status of my art and my person, and a part of my cultural circumstance. This status endows this exhibition with a special significance.
The show itself, however, was not overtly political. In fact, many commentators noted the dearth of politically-engaged work, stating that this was to the detriment of the exhibition.
There is, however, a less noticeable but perhaps more sinister absence in this show. Ai’s social sculptures and virtual performance works, both of which seek to abolish the line separating his personal and public lives and engage the public in his work through social media (blogs, Twitter), are nowhere to be found.
By its very title, “Ai Weiwei absent” raises a profound question about how contemporary artists engage the public. In the end, however, the exhibit fails to adequately examine the parameters of the question it is asking.
Noah Buchan, Taipei Times
Ai’s dissidence is completely ignored by the museum, as none of the materials available to visitors and journalists, like press releases and exhibition catalogues, make any reference to the fact that he was in jail for almost three months.
Hélder Beja, Macau Closer
If [the political silence] was a deliberate effort on the part of the museum, we can criticise this sort of omission and skirting of the issue as being trapped in the Modernist concept of the museum, only emphasising contemplation of the object and material, deliberately eschewing the aesthetics of [real, historical] incidents. Put another way, this exhibition completely lacks warm engagement with the viewer…. In these cold objects, we only see an object-based, impoverished, gentle Ai Weiwei. But compare this to the persevering activist Ai Weiwei in [the documentary film] ‘Disturbing the Peace’. If this was an aesthetic choice on the part of the artist himself, perhaps he has decided to selectively present himself, deliberately skirting and concealing the strong political demands of his documentary.
Gong Zhuojun, China Times
Despite the lack of political undertones in the show, controversy arose over the Ai’s absence. The artist declared in an interview with Radio Taiwan International in November that no attempt had been made by the exhibition organisers to invite him to the show’s opening. The museum maintains that it did extend an invitation to the artist, and Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin stated, “We’ve tried very hard. We really hope [Ai] can come.” The artist’s responded with his explanation of the current political atmosphere in Taiwan,
They didn’t try anything, I can say very clearly that they didn’t try anything. They can go get close to China; China wants so badly for them to be close. But in that longing, what is it that they intentionally overlooked? The answer is, of course, the voices that would make them unhappy. If the relationship between Taiwan and China is just doing business, I see no future in it.
I heard there were barely any people [attending the exhibition] at all. I understand the political circles in Taipei are touch-and-go. A little island’s politics yielding entirely to a mighty power. Very interesting.
Ai’s criticism prompted Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to visit the exhibition during his re-election campaign, where he commented on Taiwan’s commitment to artistic freedom and human rights.
Ma praised the diversity, deep emotions and reflections on Chinese society shown in Ai’s artwork and installation pieces, such as a surveillance monitor made of marble, a comment on Ai’s life under the Chinese government’s scrutiny, and said it highlighted the difference between Taiwan and China.
‘In Taipei, local borough chiefs and residents urged the city government to install surveillance monitors as a public safety measure. It is an interesting observation of how monitors here are rarely used as a tool for the violation of human rights,’ he said.
Mo Yan-chih, Taipei Times
‘He’s an artist and should have the freedom to express his artistic views,’ President Ma Ying-jeou said after viewing Ai’s exhibition at a Taipei museum. ‘This is also the core value of Taiwan.’
Regardless of the controversy, the political significance of the exhibition, especially with regards to the country that hosted it, was still felt by many of its visitors.
‘Perhaps for Chinese viewers Taiwan is the only place to see an Ai Weiwei exhibition,’ said Qiao Yang, 40, a tourist from Shanghai who came to Taiwan specifically for the exhibition. … ‘In China, we have heard of this person but could rarely see his works.’
The significance of the exhibition lies less in its framing in Taiwan as an alternative model of Chinese political rule, and more in the context of Taiwan as an alternative model of Chinese cultural activity. Ai’s exhibition opened in a city where just a few miles away the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 was being celebrated in a series of exhibitions featuring treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei collections. Ai’s work benefits from being seen in such close proximity to one of the world’s most legitimate repositories of Chinese cultural capital which is, for now at least, unimaginable anywhere else.
Bicycles and photographs
Ai Weiwei’s series of bicycle installations, entitled Forever Bicycles, has reached an unprecedented scale. For this show, Ai joined 1,200 bicycles together to create the most talked-about piece in the exhibition.
The labyrinthine structure of multiple overlapping layers of bikes, like an abstract form in motion, symbolises the state of constant change in China’s society and environment. Employing the largest number of bicycles of any Ai Weiwei bicycle installation to date, it is certain to become a focal point of attention.
The bike model represents China’s domestically-produced bicycles – Shanghai’s Forever brand bicycles, China’s oldest bicycle manufacturing company. They successfully established a notable brand and emblem while formulating the mainland’s bicycle specification standards. The bicycles, which once filled China’s cities, are now the people’s collective memory of a generation. Where they once were familiar, they are now cherished. But following the rapid development of society, the traffic scene on the city streets has also changed.
Wang Shi-ji, World Art
The piece ‘realises the dynamic force of collective progress’, the exhibitor’s notes comment, but it is interesting to note that these vehicles of collective progress comprise only the basic frame and the wheels; there are no pedals, no handlebars for steering and no brakes. Whoever controls this machine of progress controls its direction and its speed, not the individual riders (for whom there are no saddles either). The frames are bare except for the maker’s name – Shanghai Forever – and the single word ‘Forever’ stamped on the crossbars of a thousand bikes in row on row feels ominous.
Charlie Storrar, Want China Times
Also on show was a series of 100 photographs dating back to the Eighties, when Ai lived in New York City. They offer a candid look into the artist’s social concerns.
‘Whenever Ai had a spare moment he would fill it with pictures of the places he visited, people he met, the area he lived,’ states the exhibition’s press release. This lends a feeling of immediacy and voyeurism to Ai’s photos, as the viewer is shown a glimpse of the artist’s life as he documents the lives of others.
Abbey Stone, Art Observed
Ai’s photographs reveal an almost anthropological interest in those living on the margins of society: the self-exiled congregation of artists and friends that passed through his East Village apartment (Bei Dao, Wang Keping, Tan Dun, Hu Yongyan, Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen, Liu Xiaodong, Xu Bing, Chen Danqing just to name a few); the homeless; and those driven to protest. His images of expressions of public resistance and protest in late 1980s New York have a particular resonance in light both of his own circumstances, and of the current ‘occupy’ movements.
Ai Weiwei exhibitions abound in 2012
Ai Weiwei is set to make an even bigger splash in 2012. Recently, the Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea hosted Ai’s landmark exhibition, ‘Sunflower Seeds’. On 22 January, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” premiered at Sundance Film Festival and received a rare standing ovation, as well as a single-finger salute from the audience to show solidarity. The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum will also hold an exhibition later this year, entitled “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”
[Editor’s note: some quotations were translated into English from the original Chinese by Art Radar.]
- Will Ai Weiwei rebuild Shanghai studio in Ghent? – November 2011 – Ai to potentially use the government’s demolition of his studio as fodder for a new art piece
- Ai Weiwei’s anthropomorphic army: 12 Zodiac Heads storm Somerset House London – June 2011 – another landmark work that was also included in the Taipei exhibition
- Hong Kong artist activist Kacey Wong on Ai Weiwei arrest – interview – May 2011 – a young artist responds to the arrest of the influential artist
- What happened at Hong Kong Ai Weiwei rally? Art Radar breaking coverage – April 2011 – Art Radar attends a protest of the artist’s recent detention
- Is China shooting a cultural missile at Taiwanese art? Taipei Times examines – April 2010 – how art and culture take on new significance with the cross-strait conflict
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