June 2011, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief