Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Activist, Artist, Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's encounters with the Chinese authorities (imprisonment, house arrest, destruction of his Shanghai studio...), relayed through social media, make the world headlines and confer on Weiwei the status of best known Chinese artist. At the present, unable to travel abroad, his absence at the opening of the show Ai Weiwei: According to What? last year at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC, made more buzz than if he had attended the cocktail party. The exhibition is now on display at the Pérez Museum of Art Miami which held its grand opening during Art Basel-Miami Beach in early December.
A plunge into Ai Weiwei's world starts sitting comfortably in the theater located on the mezzanine at the PAMM where a succession of quotes from Ai Weiwei or "Weiwei-isms" roll on a screen, representing a quintessence of his practice.
The exhibition which takes most of the museum's second floor assembles a wide array of works from the past twenty years and following some chronological thread, starts with the black and white photographs made by the artist when he lived in New York City, called the New York Photographs, 1983-1993. It is almost a non-Weiweian introduction, an anecdotal view of his years spent in the East Village. During that period, he discovered Jaspers Jones, Andy WarholMarcel Duchamp and conceptual art. Included in the show, Château Lafite, 1988, a bottle of the famous wine strapped to Chinese shoes is a purely Duchamp inspired work.
Moon Chest, 2008, composed of seven chests ( out of eighty-one in the series) redesigned by the artist who carved holes in the precious wood to represent every phase of the moon, Cube in Ebony, 2009, a minimalist work with haptic qualities inspired by a redwood box belonging to the artist's father, take over the first part of the show followed by a succession of  famous works like Coca-Cola Vase, 2007, or Colored Vases, 2007-2010, variations on the same idea: appropriation and re-branding of (ancient) objects, inspired by Pop art.
Who has not seen photographs of Weiwei dropping the urns on the Internet? Confronted by the print Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995-2009, to my surprise, I cringed. Like an iconoclast, the artist destroys 2000 years of traditions in a few seconds, annihilating culture, history, ancestors with his sacrilegious but liberating gesture.
Across, another installation Bowls of Pearls, 2006 composed of two one meter diameter porcelain bowls  filled with cultured pearls inspires different emotions. The symbol of purity, innocence, becomes a symbol of greed. The interaction between the guard and the crowd is a testimony to the irresistible attraction. The pearls represent also the wealth of a state, built on each individual. Grapes, 2007, is another well-known piece, assemblage of stools from the Qing dynasty, arranged in a defensive embrace.

In the next room, the installations help us get a deeper understanding of the artist, his political engagement, his inspirations and emotions. 258 Fakes, 2011, with seven thousand of his personal digital photographs projected on twelve monitors along the wall feels like being a guest to the artist's studio. Looking at two different screens, one can compare the structure of an insect or a shell to an architectural design copied from nature. Ai Weiwei's photographs are the equivalent of other artists' sketches, they are his source of inspiration.
More printed photographs cover another wall, made at different stages of construction of the famous Bird's Nest ( the Beijing National Stadium) built for the Summer Olympics in 2008. Ai Weiwei contributed to the project as the artistic consultant, an eye opener and a turning point in his relationship with the State.
Another powerful installation gets us closer to Ai Weiwei with a long list of the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, mainly children, filling a wall. This is a reproduction of a similar list he keeps updated at his studio in official characters, black and white, like taken out of a gigantic ledger. With Remembrance, 2010, in the background, a recording of the names of the victims more than three hours long, Weiwei adopts a minimalist approach to a very emotional subject.  Close by, a video shows the salvage of the concrete reinforcing bars on the site of the catastrophe, the remodeling to their original shape and their assemblage for the installation Straight, 2008-2012, which is also part of the show. In this conceptual work, Ai Weiwei emphasizes the fragility of the construction and the responsibility of the State in the tragedy.
More works are included like Map of China, 2008, made of salvaged wood from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, a famous photograph Ai Weiwei in the elevator when taken in custody by the police, 2009, which was posted real time on Twitter by the artist, Surveillance Camera, 2010, in marble or Jade Handcuffs, 2012, in jade.
But the most photographed piece, as far as I can tell, is He Xie, 2010, an installation of  three thousand and two hundred porcelain crabs. This alludes to a party organized by the artist who invited guests via Twitter for a supper composed of 10 000 crabs in November 2010 to bring attention to the imminent demolition of his studio in Shanghai by the authorities. The work is built around a subtle Chinese word play, river crab meaning also harmonious, a word favored by the Chinese authorities as in "harmonious society", a way to justify censorship.
The exhibition allows to discover Ai Weiwei, the artist and grasp the scope of his practice sometimes overshadowed by his activism. Every act becomes political including art according to Weiwei.
The show was well staged with plenty of space to appreciate the works and clear comments in English and Spanish. A great start for the PAMM.

photographs by the author:

"Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn", 1995-2009, and "Colored Vases", 2007-2010 
"Study of Perspective: Tienanmen", 1995-2003
"He Xie", 2010

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