Ai Weiwei with Sunflower Seeds, 2010
Hand painted porcelain, Tate Modern – Turbine Hall, London
AI WEIWEI’S GHOST
Based on current exhibition at Lisson Gallery and Somerset House, London
In our traditional imagery, the Chinese culture is the most meticulous, the most rigidly ordered, the one most deaf to temporal events, most attached to the pure delineation of space; we think of it as a civilization of dikes and dams beneath the eternal face of the sky; we see it spread and frozen, over the entire surface of a continent surrounded by walls. Even its writing does not reproduce the fugitive flight of the voice in horizontal lines; it erects the motionless and still-recognizable images of things themselves in vertical columns.
(Foucault, The Order of Things, 1966)
Ai Weiwei currently is at the centre of the art scene, but he simultaneously is nowhere to be seen. He is not dead, like other artists who came before him, but he currently isn’t alive either—he is idle—but not because his intent is that of generating an aura of mystery around his persona, nor his work. Looking at the artist’s output currently exhibited in London and New York, one cannot avoid sensing Ai Weiwei’s absence in the presence of his works. Each installation simultaneously is a work of art, a statement about China and its discourse with the West, and an unsettling reminder of the overriding powers of totalitarian regimes at large.
Ai Weiwei was arrested on 3rd of April by the Chinese authorities who repeatedly visited and raided the artist’s Beijing’s studio prior to his disappearance. The Chinese government has given no satisfactory answer to where the artist may be or why he was arrested. On the 20th of May, a claim was made that the artist’s company may have evaded taxes; however, no further information was released.
Ai Weiwei’s relationship with China has always been a difficult complex one; at times supported by the establishment, like in the case of his direct involvement in the building of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, and at others feared or despised for his outspoken and critically charged artistic statements that have made him one of the best known contemporary artists in the world. Could it be that his ever-increasing fame has in a sense backfired and that with the mounting amplification of Ai Weiwei’s subversive messages through a number of high profile exhibitions around the world, China has begun to see the artist as a serious public relation threat? Ai Weiwei’s work has always been, in one-way or another, political. Through the creation of elusive objects, the appropriation and destruction of iconic ones and the creation of seemingly juvenile but poignantly direct imagery, the artist has developed a free and irreverent voice.
His installation Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern greatly captivated audiences, even when after two days after its opening it had to be sealed off due to health and safety concerns – dust. Visitors could no longer walk and sit on the immense bed of sculpted and hand-painted seeds but they still gathered to look at it in amazement. Sunflower Seeds represented China and the Western impossibility of understanding China beyond the idea of the multitude of people that live there and that to us in the West look all the same, like sunflowers seeds. All equal, they contribute to the multitude which constitutes the greatness of the nation – anonymous units possessing a wealth of repressed potentiality repressed by the strict poverty in which the regime kept its people, so that at times all they had to eat was sunflower seeds.
The exhibition at Tate’s Turbine Hall was dismantled two weeks ago and on its last day, an hour before it closed, a woman walked close to the edge of the seeds, removed her clothes and walked naked over the installation for a few minutes. It was her way of bringing back an idea of freedom to a work of art stoked by far too many ghosts. The gallery attendants did not rush to cover her. Security stood by and watched. Some people clapped. Tate was quiet, even the Turbine Hall was.
Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2006
Vases from the Neolithic age (5000 - 3000 BCE) and industrial paint; between 10” x diameter 9” and 14 1/2” x diameter 9 1/2”, 2006
At Lisson Gallery, Ai Weiwei’s voice is ventriloquised by a selection of works delivering statements about China’s intentional disrespect for the that have been destroyed in order to develop new and modern constructions. Monumental Junkyard (2007) presents a pile of doors sculpted in marble, commenting on the discarded elements from destroyed buildings—each spectral door summoning a potential narrative along with its lost reality. Colored Vases (2006) is a trademark act of irreverence by Ai Weiwei, one of those that challenges the boundaries between creation and destruction, beauty and horror, historical value and artistic value. This collection features 51 original Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) onto which the artist has poured industrial paint. The result is at unison shocking and liberating.
Currently, in the open courtyard of Somerset House in London, is the Circle of Animals, which was also shown in New York. This is the very first time a contemporary artist is allowed to stage an installation in the heart of what is the most respectable institution for classical and early modern art in Europe. The 12 animal heads of which the installation comprises are re-creations of the Chinese zodiac that once adorned the fountain of Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing. The heads, each sprouting water at two-hour intervals were part of a fountain-clock designed by two European Jesuits at the behest of the Manchu Emperor Qianlong. These were pillaged in 1860, when the site was ransacked by French and British troops. Today, seven heads – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and boar – have been located; the whereabouts of the other five are unknown.
Ai Weiwei explains:
I am fascinated by making public art. ‘Public’ does not just refer to the museum public; it’s for people passing by and using communal spaces. I think the public deserve the best. In the past, only a pope or an emperor had access to the artworks they commissioned. I want my work to be accessible to everyone. As Yuanming Yuan was being built, Somerset House was being constructed and for me this means that the Courtyard is the perfect setting for Circle of Animals.
Some critics have read these heads as part of Ai Weiwei’s investigation of the power of the original and the copy. However, it is evident that the animal heads are not simply standing on pillars, but that they are effectively impaled onto what looks like tree shards. This circle of animal heads is a circle of violence and subjugation, terror and captivity. The heads are indiscernibly suspended between life and death; ambiguously staring at us in a silent confrontation. At Somerset House, the spurts of water rising from the ground in the courtyard highlight the passing of time as visitors stand in front of the sculptures. The impression of standing in front of a memorial of some description is unavoidable.
Looking at these sculptures, one is only hopping that Ai Weiwei is somewhere, giving the finger to a Chinese authority, just as he did in his hilarious Perspective Studies series, and if that is what he’s up to, we hope to see that photograph soon.
All the way to New York
I can feel the distance
(Tori Amos, China, 1992)
Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals, 2011
12 bronze casts, 10ft tall
Ai Weiwei, Monumental Junkyard, 2007
Marble 40 pieces each 6 x 213 x 91 cm, 20 pieces each 6 x 210 x 80cm
Giovanni Aloi is a lecturer of Art History and Media Studies and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the online Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. He also lectures at Tate Modern and Tate on the subject of the galleries' collections. His main research areas involve modern and contemporary art with a strong interest for the representation/presence of animals in the exhibiting space.