Ai Weiwei has three simultaneous solo exhibitions in Beijing this month, marking his first-ever solo shows in the mainland and a wave of subtle, new works.
Art Radar peers into the largest of the three exhibitions, a major show of the activist artist’s new works at Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art. Although the show is a far cry from his political oeuvre, Ai’s ‘homecoming’ makes for a sensational re-appearance in his home city.
Beijing’s Galleria Continua, in collaboration with Tang Contemporary Art, has launched “Ai Weiwei” (6 June – 6 September 2015), which marks the first time the artist has held a solo show in his native country. For the first time since his house arrest, Ai Weiwei was able to attend the opening. Talking to The New York Times during the vernissage about how it felt to be there, he “quietly” said:
It’s surprising. It feels different.
The show was originally slated to open on 30 May, but authorities allegedly requested for it to be pushed back after the 4 June anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As The New York Times reported, Ai Weiwei and his team held all the negotiations and no major problems seemed to arise. Federica Beltrame, Director of Galleria Continua in Beijing, told the newspaper that the work “is nothing political. There’s nothing to be censored.”
The ancient in a new social context
Curated by Cui Cancan, the exhibition spreads across the two spaces in the 798 Art District, featuring a reconstructed Ming dynasty ancestral temple from Jiangxi province. The Wang Jiaci (or Wang family ancestral hall) was dedicated to Wang Hua, the Prince of Yue, who reigned during the sixth century AD and was venerated as a model public servant from the Tang to the Qing eras. The temple was considered to be a sacred space for hundreds of years, where offerings and ceremonies for ancestors as well as important social activities and meetings took place.
Ai had the ancient temple disassembled into more than 1500 pieces and rebuilt in the two adjacent exhibition spaces, crossing the dividing wall. The deconstruction of the structure was possible because of its ancient architectural characteristics — a more than 1000-year-old Chinese tradition where wooden columns and beams were completely independent and therefore detachable from the walls.
By bringing an imposing installation of an actual historical building into the exhibition space, Ai has transported its cultural significance and aesthetic beauty. The created environment has a “totality” that encompasses not only the physical, but also the temporal and social spheres.
Visitors roaming through the space and structure also become inseparably part of the project. Surveillance cameras have been placed in strategic locations, so that what is invisible on one side of the wall is visible on the other via a screen. The building, transferred to a new context and thus deprived of its original one, acquires a new shape and meaning, a new social function. Ai focuses on the importance of human actions within a particular event, by providing the space and structure for these interactions to happen. The wider public and its behavior thus become the real focus of the work.
In an interview with the gallery director at Galleria Continua, Ai says:
[…] my work is about social research; it is a learning process. The work only happens because I am making it for the show; without the show, the work is nothing.
Part of the project is also the documentation – in video and photographs – of the whole process of creation, from disassembling the temple to its reconstruction.
Throughout the exhibition, Ai has placed everyday objects that recreate the feeling of the ancient space, such as a painted ladder, traditional dragon lanterns, a crystal chandelier inspired by the Han dynasty and a floor installation of antique teapot spouts from the Song to Qing dynasties.
In a glass case, a Ming dynasty ‘chicken cup’ is displayed alone, as a reference to the wine cup decorated with a rooster, hen and chicks, which sold to the Chinese art collector Liu Yiqian at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction in 2014 for a record USD36.3 million. The ‘chicken cup’ is a blatant reference to the commercialisation and commodification of culture and history.
The temple serves a similar principle, although this is not entirely understood until one learns about the history behind the building. Bought at a public auction in 2013, it was relocated, restructured and put into the market by Zhu Caichang, a merchant of ancient buildings who comes from a woodcarver family. Ai first encountered the building in 2014 at Zhu’s factory in Dongyang, close to Ai’s ancestral home in Zhejiang province. The artist decided to purchase it, giving Zhu the work of rebuilding it in the exhibition.
A sensational re-appearance
In an interview with the exhibition curator, Ai speaks about his decision to divide the installation between two galleries:
I wanted to make a statement that I am doing an exhibition in China. I want to show that I haven’t done an exhibition. The fact that the exhibition has no meaning or implications; it simply happens. After it happens, I cannot say I’ve never done an exhibition in China.
Ai Weiwei is certainly making his statement heard and seen. On 8 June Beijing’s Magician Space opened another of Ai’s solo shows, entitled “AB Blood Type” (until 9 August 2015), while on 13 June Chambers Fine Art, also in the capital, launched “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger” (until 31 August 2015).
Although “Ai Weiwei” is an exhibition expressed with great subtlety, this sudden surge of solo exhibitions by the artist in his home city makes a powerful statement — that we cannot deny his conspicuous presence in the art world, whether abroad or at home.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- “China 8″: Germany’s largest show of contemporary Chinese art – June 2015 – 9 museums across 8 cities unite for the largest ever show of contemporary Chinese art in Germany
- Chinese women artists explore humanity’s relationship with nature – in pictures – June 2015 – Beijing’s Italian Center holds exhibition exploring the relationship between humans and nature, featuring 5 Chinese women artists
- Chinese art collective island6 takes on bodies and broken bones – in pictures – May 2015 – Shanghai-based island6 Art Collective’s new exhibition explores fragility, accidents and healing through humorous images
- Chinese artist Liu Wei on elegance, enigmas and creativity from crisis – interview – April 2015 – Art Radar speaks to Chinese contemporary artist Liu Wei on the occasion of his mid-career solo-show “Colors” at UCCA in Beijing
- Imprisonment and human rights: Artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island – October 2014 – Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s exhibition “@Large – Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” comprises 7 new site-specific installations
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