June 8th, 2015

Ai Weiwei Trades Politics for Subtlety in First Solo Exhibition in China

By: Amy Qin       Source: The New York Times/Sinosphere         8/6/2015


Visitors gather around a reassembled ancestral hall at the opening on Saturday of Ai Weiwei’s first solo exhibition in China.Credit TANG Contemporary Art

Barred since 2011 from traveling outside his home country, the artist Ai Weiwei has become a master of what might be called “remote exhibition-making” — using 3-D computer models, Skype, and a team of curators and assistants to create large-scale installations around the world from his studio in Beijing. But no virtual simulation was needed for the artist’s newest exhibition, which opened last weekend at the Galleria Continua and at the Tang Contemporary Art Center in the trendy 798 Art District of Beijing.

On Saturday afternoon, tourists, fans, and family and friends of the artist flocked to the opening of Mr. Ai’s first-ever solo exhibition in China to see the show and, more important for many, to catch a glimpse of the famous rebel artist himself. Dressed in a green short-sleeve shirt, khaki shorts and navy canvas shoes, Mr. Ai appeared to be in good spirits as he fielded an unending stream of requests for photographs, selfies and autographs. When asked how it felt finally to be able to attend an opening for one of his exhibitions, the typically outspoken artist had only a few words to say.

“It’s surprising,” he said, quietly. “It feels different.” 

Mr. Ai preparing the exhibition in Beijing.
Mr. Ai preparing the exhibition in Beijing.Credit Oak Taylor-Smith

The show, called “Ai Weiwei,” contains none of the overt political commentary that has infused much of the artist’s more recent work. There are no Lego portraits of prisoners of conscience and political exiles from around the world, as seen in his 2014 installation on Alcatraz Island, near San Francisco. Nor is there any reference to his detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011 as he prepared to catch a flight to Hong Kong, which Mr. Ai recreated in a series of dioramas that were presented in Venice in 2013.

Instead, Mr. Ai has chosen to take a more subtle approach. At the center of the exhibit, which was mounted with prior approval by the local authorities, is a 400-year-old Ming dynasty-era ancestral hall that Mr. Ai and his team disassembled and rebuilt in two different exhibition spaces, splitting the monumental wooden structure between the Galleria Continua and the adjacent Tang Contemporary Art Center. The process was documented in video and photographs that are also on display.

A field of teapot spouts.
A field of teapot spouts.Credit Jeanne Moore/The New York Times

In a nod to the continued influence of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades on Mr. Ai’s work, various everyday objects are placed throughout the two exhibition spaces: a painted ladder, traditional lanterns and a vast spread of spouts broken off from antique teapots.

An arrangement of replicas of a Ming dynasty “chicken cup” is presented in a glass display case, a reference to the wine cup decorated with a rooster and hen tending to their chicks made famous by the Chinese art collector Liu Yiqian, who bought the antique at a Sotheby’s auction last year for what was at the time a record $36 million for a piece of porcelain.

The focus of the project is not meant to be the ancient hall itself but rather the visitors as they interact with the environment and the objects on display — an extension of the concern with social behavior commonly found in Mr. Ai’s work. Visitors are invited to walk in and around the structure and observe it from different vantage points. While it is impossible to see the rebuilt temple in its entirety, Mr. Ai, who is known to be a compulsive documentarian and archivist, has installed two screens in each space streaming live surveillance-camera images from the other gallery.

Through interacting with the environment, the public is meant to create a new “social context” and identity for the temple, which was originally built by a family in a village in Jiangxi Province to venerate their ancestor Wang Hua, a sixth-century prince.

“He did everything on his own, what to bring, what to do, the way everything was made,” said Federica Beltrame, the director of the Galleria Continua, of Mr. Ai. “It was important to him to have something that was not so easy, not just bringing works and installing them in a commercial space.”

The ancestral hall, before it was reassembled in Beijing.
The ancestral hall, before it was reassembled in Beijing.Credit Oak Taylor-Smith

According to Ms. Beltrame, the show was originally scheduled to open on May 30, but it was pushed back by a week at the request of the authorities who did not want the exhibition to be opening before the June 4 anniversary of the military crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Ms. Beltrame said Mr. Ai and his team handled most of the discussions with the authorities, which were said to have proceeded without any major problems.

“They see he’s not doing anything bad,” she said. “The work itself is nothing political. There’s nothing to be censored.”

In a transcript made available to journalists of a conversation with Cui Cancan, the show’s curator, Mr. Ai explained his decision to divide the building between two galleries.

“I wanted to make a statement that I am doing an exhibition in China,” he said.

“I want to show that I haven’t done an exhibition,” he added. “The fact that the exhibition has no meaning or implications; it simply happens. After it happens, I cannot say I’ve never done an exhibition in China.”

If the purpose of the exhibition is to make a statement, then Mr. Ai appears to be intent on making an emphatic entrance. In addition to the installation in the Galleria Continua and the Tang Contemporary Art, which runs through Sept. 6, Mr. Ai has two more solo exhibitions in Beijing opening this month, one at Magician Space, which opened on Monday, and one at Chambers Fine Art, which opens on June 13.

Although Mr. Ai had been featured before in group shows in China, this cluster of solo exhibitions in Beijing represents a rare opportunity for mainland fans of Mr. Ai to see new work by the artist.

“I think it’s great that he’s opening this show, because he hasn’t had his work shown in China in so long,” Wei Wei, 27, a software engineer at a technology start-up and a fan of Mr. Ai’s work, said at the opening on Saturday. “A lot of people first find themselves interested in him as a person. Then, by getting to know him, they start to know and understand his artwork as well.”

“Ai Weiwei”
Galleria Continua/Tang Contemporary Art
District 798, Beijing
+86 10 5978-9505
Through Sept. 6

“AB Blood Type”
Magician Space
District 798, Beijing
+86 10 8459-9635
Through Aug. 9

Chambers Fine Art
Caochangdi, Beijing
Exhibit opens on June 13