Saturday, 14 May 2011

Ai Weiwei in London

The Lisson Gallery and Somerset House are staging exhibitions of Ai Weiwei's work just as the Tate Modern Turbine Hall Sunflower Seeds are finally harvested: yet all were arranged before the artist's dubious incarceration by the Chinese government. What does this mean? Absolutely nothing, as it happens. The artist's work speaks for itself without any explicit reference to the politics of modern China. If that country's decision to incarcerate the artist (and, briefly, his lawyer) were not bad enough, the fact that the artist's work is really rather good makes their decision look all the more perverse.

It's fun, you see. Up at the Lisson Gallery, the pieces - they are almost all objects, sculptures - are witty and colourful. The most obvious is the collection of Han Dynasty earthenware dipped in modern acrylics, complete with the dynamic drip effect of the briskly executed painting. There are also a number of everyday objects made from marble - a pair of chairs, a stack of front doors. There's also a coffin in a peculiar, crooked shape. Like the doors, chairs and the remarkable ball-like polygon-panelled sculptures these are all beautifully made, expertly finished. Such attention to detail is necessary for the art to work (like Anish Kapoor's sculpture): the monumental Moon Chest seems like an uninteresting row of crates until, viewed form the end, a series of crescents appear through careful placement of asymmetric holes.

At first glance then - play, craftsmanship, colour (the Huali and Iron wood sculptures, are a riot of different tan shades, even within each piece and the veins of the marble sculptures are more pungent than the grain of the wood that might otherwise have marked them). But Ai Weiwei's work is bound to China and its past. And yes, it has a social commentary.

Anthony Gormley's Field (this version Tate Liverpool, 2004)
So, the Coloured Vases, pushing out from a corner of the gallery, demanding attention, placed at foot level without dais or cordon are original 1800-year old Chinese artefacts, just with (literally) a new coat of paint. I immediately thought of Anthony Gormley's Field, an informal installation of terracotta figures, staring up from the gallery which they have overtaken in their thousands. Physically the exhibit is inert but the individual figures demand attention, some sort of connection if not dialogue. Reflexively, the dynamism of the piece reminds me of that aforementioned sunflower exhibition at Tate Modern, where the hand-made field of seeds demands closer reflection, despite the initial impact of uniformity or homogeneity. Coloured Vases makes a new demand, to those looking for the cheap attraction of a Chinese commodity: stop; consider the value of the object and its origin. This is no rebuke. Rather it is an invitation, positive, open, constructive but the very opposite of the commodity-irony of, say, Jeff Koons. It looks outwards.

Weiwei also looks inwards though. The domestic furniture-in-marble series has a third, rather more sorrowful piece, with a Surveillance Camera also made in marble. Whether this is a petrified anachronism or an inescapable component of Chinese culture uncovered in the act of reductive sculpture is a lesser question compared to the glazed solidity of the object. Like the peculiar Coffin, made with wood recovered from a Qing Dynasty (17th century) temple - complete with benches with which one can sit up close against it, there is the opportunity for the viewer to approach that which might otherwise have been, culturally, out of reach. However, though proximity is offered a new reverence takes its place. These are still objects to be treated with respect - but because they are artworks, on display, rather than artefacts of government.

It was with this in mind that I went across to Somerset House to view the semi-site-specific piece in this series, The Circle Of Animals/Zodiac Heads. 'Semi-site-specific'? Well, the heads are an interpretative reproduction of the sculptures that were once to be found at the fountain of the Yuanming Yuan Imperial Palace in Beijing. Yuanming Yuan was a contemporary structure with Somerset House and the forecourt of the British building has a fountain built into it, around which the sculptures are placed. I was unmoved by the pieces - whose eyes are glazed over, with the exception of the belligerent dragon and leopard, and whose mouths are open in the manner that they would have been as functioning components of the original fountain - but at least Weiwei is consistent. Consistent in the reproduction or re-working of ideas or materials that are distinctly Chinese in a manner (in this case, the site) that demands the connection to be made.

As for Ai Weiwei, has he dirtied his hands? Certainly, his hands are stained with the dust of 3rd century Chinese earthenware and 17th century Chinese temple timber, and the clay, marble and indeed steel with which he has created work that refers directly to the strong cultural heritage of his home country. None of this is any more alien to him than his own irrefutably Chinese DNA. As one of the flyposters wrapped around the Lisson Gallery quotes him as saying, long after the words are silenced the facts live on. In these exhibitions Weiwei has presented London with the fact of the Chinese artefact and the Chinese artisan, his inheritance and his profession. There is no subversion here, no polemic or gracelessness. Ai Weiwei's disappearance is a troubling situation, as, irrespective of the questionable charge with which it has been effected, the art itself is of intrinsic value both here and in China. There is more information to be found at

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