Friday, July 18, 2014

Of pots and pearls. . . and crabs and bicycles and rebar.

Ai Weiwei, Stacked (2014, 700 stainless-steel bicycles)

I lucked out on my recent trip to New York City.  Not only was there the Jeff Koons retrospective (one of the reasons I planned the trip), there just happened to be an exhibition of work by Ai Weiwei.  Ai is another art-world superstar who is at the top of my list of artists to experience.  There’s a big difference between these two shows.  First, Ai does not suffer from the negative criticism that Koons often confronts. In fact, critics are in love with Ai Weiwei, but it’s understandable.  It’s hard not to respect an artist as political and provocative as Ai.  The Chinese government has thrown the artist in jail because he’s annoyed them so much.  He’s also embraced the digital age in ways that other artists haven’t quite figured out, using Twitter and other social media to amplify the impact of his art.

While the two artists’ styles are very different they do share something in common.  Both understand the importance of creating sophisticated objects.  And neither of them do much of the actual production.  People often talk about Koons’ army of assistants in a highly-critical manner.  You seldom hear the same criticism of Ai, even though he also employs an army of assistants and production personal to create his elaborate works of art.

The show, titled Ai Weiwei: According to What? originated in Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and then made several stops in the US and Canada before arriving in Brooklyn.  However the Brooklyn show features two large works that were not on display in the previous exhibitions.  I felt those two works make the show particularly interesting and wouldn’t have enjoyed the exhibition as much if I hadn’t seen them. Here are some of the works I found particularly interesting.

The woodworking skills in many of Ai’s works are impressive.  Take Moon Chest for example. On display in Brooklyn were seven large wooden chests that are from the larger work which features 81 chests.  Each chest has four holes cut into it that mimic the stages of the lunar eclipse.  The chests are constructed using traditional Chinese methods using no nails or screws. 

Ai Weiwei, Moon Chest (2008, seven chests in huali wood)
Ai Weiwei likes to use antiques in his works, often those antiques are in the form of furniture.  For his series started in 1997 he uses old furniture built without using nails, a technique perfected during the Ming and Qing dynasties when China's furniture production reached a pinnacle of excellence. In Grapes, humble stools are transformed into a space-like constellation, asking questions about how much tradition should influence the now.

Ai Weiwei, Grapes (2012, 27 antique wooden stools from the Qing dynasty [1644 - 1911])

Ai is notorious for creating works that feature enormous quantities of the same item.  The most famous of these was the installation at Tate Modern that included millions of handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds.  There are no sunflower seeds here, instead there are two enormous porcelain bowls filled with cultivated freshwater pearls.  Also, there was a great big pile of porcelain crabs. The word for river crab in Chinese is he xie which also sounds like the word for harmonious, part of the Chinese Communist Party slogan. In 2010, Chinese authorities announced they would demolish Ai’s new Shanghai studio.  In response, Ai used Twitter to invite guests to a feast of 10,000 river crabs to protest the control of information.  Ai was under house arrest so he was unable to attend the party.

Ai Weiwei, Bowls of Pearls (2006, porcelain bowls and freshwater pearls)
Ai Weiwei, He Xie (2010, 3,200 porcelain crabs)

Another of Ai’s favorite art world tricks is to destroy antiquities. Frequently the antiquities in questions are Han Dynasty vases.  One Ai’s most famous works is called Dropping and is seen in the photographs featured in this image.  In it, Ai destroyed a 2,000 year old vase.  Ai also has a penchant for painting Han Dynasty vases. For me, these works once again ask questions about the value of tradition.

Ai Weiwei, installation view featuring Colored Vases 
(2007 - 10, Han Dynasty vases [206 B. C. E. - 220 C. E] and industrial paint)
Ai is no stranger to New York.  He lived there from 1983 to 1993. During that time he was strongly influenced by the work of Marcel Duchamp. (It’s interesting that both Ai and Koons list Duchamp as a significant influence in their work.) I like this simple portrait made from a coat hanger that references some very Duchampian ideas.  There’s the readymade everyday object and the self-portrait of the artist in profile.

Ai Weiwei, Profile of Marcel Duchamp in a Coat Hanger (1986, wire clothes hanger)
One of my favorite works in the show is Straight.  I like this work because you can read it on two levels.  Without knowing the story behind the work, it’s still an impressive work that forces an immediate emotional response.  It too speaks to the idea of the readymade as it’s nothing more than a pile of rebar. But what a pile?  Laid out in varying lengths, the rebar evokes the landscapes of Maya Lin.  As you learn what you are really looking at, Straight becomes even more powerful.  The work consists of 73 tons of rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai had every piece meticulously straightened through a laborious process. Suddenly the landscape-like canyon feels like a crack in the world. And the emotional response is ratcheted up.

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008, 73 tons of steel rebar)

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008, 73 tons of steel rebar)

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008, 73 tons of steel rebar)

Ai Weiwei likes bicycles.  And he’s taken to using them in spectacular fashion in large installations. He uses them to celebrate the bicycle’s importance to the Chinese people. For his Brooklyn show, he used bicycles made from stainless steel and ditched the handlebars and seat, creating a dizzying structure. The result is a work that suggests in “China the individual is often undervalued and seen only as part of the whole.” This again is an even more obvious reference to Duchamp who also used bicycle parts in his work.

Ai Weiwei, Stacked (2014, 700 stainless-steel bicycles)

Ai Weiwei, Stacked (2014, 700 stainless-steel bicycles)

I’ll finish with another particularly powerful work featured in Ai Weiwei: According to what? The Chinese government regularly gets tired of Ai and his political activism and criticism. In 2011, the Chinese authorities threw Ai in jail for 81 days. In response, he created S.A.C.R.E.D. to document the unpleasantness of the affair.  In the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum were six very large, imposing metal boxes with no ornamentation.  Cut into each box were two small windows that allowed the viewer to peer inside. Inside were dioramas representing Ai’s life in prison, including the moment he was led into his cell, the periods of interrogation, and the daily activities of eating, sleeping, showering, and using the toilet. All of these views include his seemingly constant companions, guards. It made me appreciate the sacrifice of an artist working so hard to change his society.

Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013, six dioramas in oxidized metal, wood, fiberglass, polystyrene, and sticky tape)

Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013, six dioramas in oxidized metal, wood, fiberglass, polystyrene, and sticky tape)

Instagrams from this visit:

Other Art Lobster posts about Ai Weiwei:

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