The private art centre in Buenos Aires is holding the first ever major art exhibition on Ai Weiwei in South America.
Art Radar looks at the exhibition running at Fundación Proa through 2 April 2018.
Seminal Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is known for his large, eye-catching installations that have been planted all over the world. Near the end of 2017, 300 installations popped up across New York City, all of which address the concept of fences and borders. The project “Inoculation”, as he was quoted, was meant to show that “any kind of wall is ridiculous… It shows a kind of narrow-minded ideas to divide people and create some kind of hatred between people.” His film Human Flow tracks the journeys of refugees on their often perilous journey to search for safer havens over borders and continents, involving scenes of refugee camps, life jackets, tear gas and detention. The refugee crisis has been one of the issues that Ai Weiwei, whose art often champions various social and humanitarian issues, has focused on for the past few years. Art and activism, it seems, is inseparable for this artist.
One of the most famous Chinese artists in the West, Ai Weiwei has achieved a huge magnitude of success over his three-decade career. Known as a founding figure of the “Stars” group in the late 1970s, which included artists Ma Desheng, Wang Keping, and Li Shuang, amongst others, the artist has become known for his works which often point out endemic crises of humanity over the past decades that he was active. Perhaps his most famous work, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) was an earlier indication of his love of risk-taking and lack of fear regarding controversy; for all the size and scale of his larger-than-life installations and projects, Ai’s works have been followed by a healthy stream of debate and discussion within and without the international art community. In 2016, he faced backlash for mimicking the pose of a drowned Syrian refugee boy, which was shot for an interview article with India Today. The same public art project for New York City held last year, entitled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbours” attracted its fair share of annoyance as well for logistical and management issues that his structures imposed on the city.
Controversy notwithstanding, Foundacion Proa has gathered together some of his most well-known works for their latest exhibition. Entitled Inoculation, the exhibition focuses on the social activism and public interventions of the artist, who is now based in Berlin. Unsurprisingly, Inoculation is not limited to specific galleries within the private art centre; taking the environment of the art centre as his theatre, Ai’s art is scattered throughout the galleries, sidewalk, the bookstore, and the café, taking cues from other art projects that have also made full use of public spaces. At the entrance to Foudacion Proa, the visitor is confronted with 1254 steel bicycles, stacked on top of each other across the length of the facade of the building, in an installation called Forever Bicycles (2017).
Much of Inoculation’s appeal comes from the fact that it brings together many of Ai Weiwei’s best-known work, providing a welcome opportunity for those in South America to see many of these famous works in one place. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2016) is a triptych piece that remakes the most famous scene of Ai Weiwei’s earlier masterpiece; only this time, however, the scene has been remade through LEGO pieces painstaking assembled together. In the LEGO version the younger Ai Weiwei continues to scowl at the camera, nonchalantly letting the 2000 year-old vase drop deliberately from his hands. Walking through the exhibition is, indeed, getting to know Ai Weiwei’s expansive oeuvre that includes photography, sculpture and mixed media installation.
Outstanding works include Sunflower Seeds (2010), a room filled with a multitude of sunflower seeds. First installed at the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern, the full-sized version of this installation numbered an overwhelming 100,000,000 sunflower seeds. Utilising a seemingly small and unimpressive icon, the sunflower seeds were in fact revealed to have been made of porcelain, each by a craftsman from the city of Jingdezhen in China, which was famous for their role in the production of high-quality ceramic and porcelain goods in traditional Chinese arts and crafts. Calling to mind the question of mass production and the “Made in China” ethos that the country is so famous for in the modern millennium, the veritable tidal wave of porcelain sunflower seeds raises questions about the structure of the modern economy and mass manufacturing practices in China. Interestingly, one of the adjacent galleries reveals one of Ai’s recent works, Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar (2017), a sculpture comprising six vases decorated in the traditional blue-and-white style. Stacked somewhat precariously on top of each other, the work appears to draw parallels to both Sunflower Seeds and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Ai’s mature works revisit some of the earlier themes and icons in his work, making for an interesting viewing experience.
The high note of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is the spotlight that he shines on the refugee crisis. Much of the exhibition is devoted to Ai Weiwei’s activism on this front; paying careful attention to the plight of the refugees, the exhibition showcases some of Ai Weiwei’s more physically impressive installations that deal with this issue. Law of the Journey (Prototype B) is a fantastic, yet intimidating sculpture of an inflatable reinforced by PVC. Filled with 51 figures dressed with life vests, the sculpture references the journey that face the refugees as they make their way across sea. In the same room, the magnificent digital print Odyssey (2016) lines the walls. Depicting a continuous landscape, Odyssey reinforces the notion of a long, never-ending journey, one where there is no clear end in sight.
Accompanying the installation is the video At Sea (2016), a video shot by Ai Weiwei of refugees in a inflatable rafts making the crossing. With the lens partially obscured, we peek out at the refugees through a clear circle on screen, almost as if we are observing them in a covert manner. As if an uncertain witness to their terror, Ai Weiwei’s At Sea reflect’s Ai Weiwei’s style of documentary making. Human Flow, which was released last year, has now been touted as Ai Weiwei’s most comprehensive documentary on the refugee crisis to date. It saw him travel to 23 countries and many refugee camps in order to understand the document the unfolding of the world’s most urgent humanitarian disaster to date.
Curated by Marcello Dantas, the exhibition runs through 2 April 2018 in the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Dantas, in a statement translated from Spanish, noted that “I felt that this work could work in Latin America if it was applied with boldness, creativity and an energetic initiative. The model of using the most vulnerable to centralize the action and empower them, and thus bring about a fundamental change in perception, seemed to me a radical transformation.” Bringing together some of Ai Weiwei’s key works from over the decade, Inoculation presents the seeds of the artist’s ideas in all its clarity.
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