Ai Weiwei’s first-ever solo exhibition(s) in China take over Beijing – in pictures

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. 

Ai Weiwei, installation view of 'Wang Family Ancestral Hall', 2015, over 1,300 pieces of various wooden building elements from late Ming Dynasty (1368-­‐1644) with original carvings and painted replacements, 2100 x 1680 x 942 cm. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Ai Weiwei, installation view of ‘Wang Family Ancestral Hall’, 2015, over 1,300 pieces of various wooden building elements from late Ming Dynasty (1368-­1644) with original carvings and painted replacements, 2100 x 1680 x 942 cm. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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.

Ai Weiwei during installation of "Ai Weiwei" at Galleria Continua, Beijing, 2015. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Ai Weiwei during installation of “Ai Weiwei” at Galleria Continua, Beijing, 2015. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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.”

Ai Weiwei, 'Wang Family Ancestral Hall', 2015, installation view, over 1,300 pieces of various wooden building elements from late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with original carvings and painted replacements, 2100 x 1680 x 942 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Wang Family Ancestral Hall’, 2015, installation view, over 1,300 pieces of various wooden building elements from late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with original carvings and painted replacements, 2100 x 1680 x 942 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

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 Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall Photographs, 2015,  79 x 48 x 3.5 cm each, 9 black and white prints. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Wang Family Ancestral Hall Photographs’, 2015, 79 x 48 x 3.5 cm each, 9 black and white prints. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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.

Crystal pillar foundation of Ai Weiwei's 'Wang Family Ancestral Hall', 2015, crystal and writing on paper, 52 x 52 x 41.5 cm. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Crystal pillar foundation of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Wang Family Ancestral Hall’, 2015, crystal and writing on paper, 52 x 52 x 41.5 cm. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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.

Pillar Foundation with Twenty-­‐Four Histories of Ai Weiwei's 'Wang Family Ancestral Hall', 2015, wooden boxes and partial texts from "Twenty-­‐Four Histories" on paper, dimensions variable. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Pillar foundation with “Twenty-Four Histories” of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Wang Family Ancestral Hall’, 2015, wooden boxes and partial texts from “Twenty-­Four Histories” on paper, dimensions variable. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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.

Installation view of "Ai Weiwei" at Galleria Continua, Beijing, 2015. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Installation view of “Ai Weiwei” at Galleria Continua, Beijing, 2015. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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.

Ai Weiwei, 'Wang Family Ancestral Hall', 2015, installation view, over 1,300 pieces of various wooden building elements from late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with original carvings and painted replacements, 2100 x 1680 x 942 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Wang Family Ancestral Hall’, 2015, installation view, over 1,300 pieces of various wooden building elements from late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with original carvings and painted replacements, 2100 x 1680 x 942 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Ai Weiwei, 'Dragon lantern and tables', 2015, antique dragon lamp with bamboo, structure, lanterns and wooden tables, Head: 340 x 160 x 160.5 cm, Tail: 313 x 110 x 143.5 cm, Body: 190 x 22 x 55 cm, Large table: 265 x 129 x 74.5 cm, Small bench: 86.5 x 52.5 x 88.5 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Dragon Lantern and Tables’, 2015, antique dragon lamp with bamboo, structure, lanterns and wooden tables, Head: 340 x 160 x 160.5 cm, Tail: 313 x 110 x 143.5 cm, Body: 190 x 22 x 55 cm, Large table: 265 x 129 x 74.5 cm, Small bench: 86.5 x 52.5 x 88.5 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

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.

Ai Weiwei, Chandelier, 2015, copper, crystal and light fixtures, 400 x 241 x 231 cm. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Chandelier’, 2015, copper, crystal and light fixtures, 400 x 241 x 231 cm. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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.

Ai Weiwei, 'Spouts installation', 2015, 10,000 antique spouts from Song to Qing Dynasties, 495 x 430 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Spouts Installation’, 2015, 10,000 antique spouts from Song to Qing Dynasties, 495 x 430 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

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.

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall Photographs, colour prints, 216.5 x 129.3 x 6 cm each. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Wang Family Ancestral Hall Photographs’, 2015, colour prints, 216.5 x 129.3 x 6 cm each. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Ai Weiwei, 'Colored Mirror', 2015, mirror in rosewood frame from Qing Dynasty (1644-­‐ 1912), paint. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Colored Mirror’, 2015, mirror in rosewood frame from Qing Dynasty (1644-­1912), paint. Photo: Oak Taylor-Smith. Image courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana.

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, "AB Blood Type", 2015, installation view at Magician Space, Beijing. Image courtesy Magician Space.

Ai Weiwei, “AB Blood Type”, 2015, installation view at Magician Space, Beijing. Image courtesy Magician Space.

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).

Ai Weiwei, 'Tree;, 2015 tree sections, steel, 735 x 707 x 690 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Chambers Fine Art.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Tree’, 2015, tree sections, steel, 735 x 707 x 690 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Chambers Fine Art.

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

764

Related Topics: Chinese artists, gallery shows, picture feasts, events in Beijing

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more exhibitions in Beijing

Comments are closed.