Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei’s most significant show to date in Austria runs from 14 July to 20 November 2016 at 21erhaus, Museum of Contemporary Art, Vienna.
Integrating his own life story and worldview with topical political issues, Chinese traditions and architectural interventions, “translocation—transformation” comprises six ambitious new and re-presented pieces by the artist.
Expulsion, migration and a chosen change in one’s location as triggers of transformative processes in people and objects is a recurrent theme running through Ai Weiwei’s life and work. This is true for his youth as much as for his time as an artist in the USA, for the phase after his return to China, and for his migration to Berlin. For every translocation carried out, a process of relocation follows. This goes hand-in-hand with inner migration and the change of identity. Despite or precisely because of his nomadic existence, Ai Weiwei is a social being, a zoon politikon, and as such cannot be thought of abstractly separated from his fellow-beings, from society, tradition and culture.
Last year the artist, who is as notorious for his incarceration by the Chinese government in 2011 and his outspoken views as for his art, held a major show at the Royal Academy in London and then three simultaneous shows in his home-city and place of residence Beijing. Despite coming hot on the heels of his 2015 UK show, “translocation—transformation” comprises a completely different set of works, hand-picked by curator Alfred Weidinger for their resonances with the venue in Austria and taking advantage of the opportunity to present works inside the building as well as in the grounds.
Wang Family Ancestral Hall (2015) hints at the artist’s former occupation as a practicing architect, and demonstrates his ability to bring some of his concerns about the built environment into his artistic works. First shown at Tang Contemporary Art, this work comprises a Ming dynasty temple, forcibly separated from its original family owners during the Cultural Revolution. In bringing the structure in 1,000 separate pieces across the world and reassembling it, Ai produces a connection with its new location, as the press release explains:
Removed from its original function, his process of translocation endowed it with new meaning. A decisive factor for the choosing of this work was the similarity of its history to that of the 21er Haus. Also originally intended to be destroyed, it was the Austrian pavilion built for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels that was relocated to Vienna and adapted to become the contemporary art museum we know today.
Displayed alongside to interplay conceptually with Wang Family Ancestral Hall are Spouts (2015) and Teahouse (2009). The former is made from 100,000 antique ceramic tea pot spouts from the Song to Qing dynasties. To re-use materials from Chinese history in this way is a hallmark of the artist’s work in the medium of installation. In Teahouse two generic house-forms made from compressed Pu-Erh-Tea emerge from a carpet of the same material, invoking not so much a real place as a child’s approximation of dwellings.
Completing the interior pieces is Lu 鯥 (2015), three hand-made bamboo and silk dragon kites suspended above a stairwell. Here the artist simply ‘translocates’ in time and space mythical creatures from one of the oldest collections of Chinese legends, the Shanhaijing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas), a text that has existed since at least the 4th century BC. Well known for having lived in America and received education in art there in the 1980s and 1990s, Ai resolutely looks at the world through the lens of China and Chinese history. As Husslein-Arco succinctly puts it in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue,
Ai Weiwei’s work is an expression of his critical dealings with the history, culture and politics of his home country… The multi layered combination of history and the present increase the fascination
Outside are Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) and a new work, F Lotus (2016). F Lotus refers to Ai’s preoccupation with the global refugee crisis, one of the themes that strongly emerges from his social media output. The press release for the show at 21erhaus explains this work is
An installation composed of 1,005 worn life jackets. Arranged in the shape of the letter F, each one of the 201 rings is comprised of five individual jackets, which float like lotus blossoms on the waters of the baroque pond at the park of the Upper Belvedere.
The calligraphic ‘F’ the artist uses in F Lotus was used before in works such as F-Grass, Ai’s piece for the Vancouver Biennale in 2014. F is presumed to stand for ‘fortitude’, ‘freedom’ and ‘Fuck Off’, therefore also linking to his exhibition of that title in Shanghai in 2000 with Feng Boyi and the follow up “FUCK OFF 2” at The Groninger Museum in the Netherlands in 2013.
As inside the venue, the two works outside are positioned closely so that their meanings augment each other. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) refers to a cultural rather than humanistic injustice:
Ai Weiwei is referring to the bronze animal heads of the water clock, which once stood at the Imperial summer palace at Yuanming Yuan in Beijing. The water clock was part of the fountain, which consisted of twelve figures with human and animal heads – a time keeper that spouted out water every two hours. French and British troops destroyed the entire palace complex in 1860 at the end of the second opium war. Numerous cultural treasures, among them the bronze heads, were stolen and scattered all over the world. When they were discovered, the restitution of the highly priced originals would make political headlines. To this day, five sculptures are still missing.
Ai has created new versions of the animal heads: they are an imagining of the original cultural artefact, but re-presented in Europe they bring the historical events back into sharp focus. The 21erhaus takes these last two works in particular as their starting point for public programming events that will discuss migration, art and social engagement.
- A Beautiful Disorder: Chinese diaspora sculpture in the English countryside – July 2016 – Cass Sculpture Foundation in Goodwood, near Chichester has spent the last three years commissioning new work by 18 emerging Chinese diaspora artists
- A tale of two cities: Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne – April 2016 – in over 300 works and suite of new commissions, the National Gallery of Victoria presents two of the greatest artists from the 20th and 21st centuries
- “Extravagant Imagination, The Wonder of Idleness”: 7 young Chinese artists at MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai – April 2016 – curated by Lu Mingjun, this exhibition brings together 7 Chinese artists who forge a new path that explores the possibilities in the “post network” era
- Duchamp and Politics: Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy in London – video – September 2015 – Royal Academy Artistic Director Tim Marlow conducts a revealing interview with Ai Weiwei
- Ai Weiwei’s first ever solo exhibition(s) in China take over Beijing – in pictures – June 2015 – 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
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