‘Straight’, (detail), Ai Wei Wei, 2012
One of the lists detailing the names and ages of children who lost their lives during the earthquake.
Yesterday, I was able to visit the Ai Wei Wei exhibition at the Royal Academy within London. Being such a prolific and controversial artist, I was extremely excited to see the work; as well as any works that I had not yet seen before in my research of the artist. My main gripe with the exhibition was the sheer amount of people getting in the way of me actually interacting with the artworks in a way that I originally wanted to. It was actually really infuriating to be surrounded by pensioners and children running around and crying, or dawdling in the doorways of the exhibition rooms. I don’t think art should be elitist, but it is frustrating, and somewhat ironic, for a budding art student to go to an exhibition about the lower classes; and struggle to get through upper classes who are wandering around ‘showing their support’, yet not being able to understand the artworks. Ridiculous, to say the least. Nevertheless, this piece; ‘Straight’, was incredibly fascinating, and very sombre. The work is in memoriam of the children ho lost their lives during the earthquake in china a few years ago. The main cause of such a huge loss of child life is because there were cuts to the building funds of the schools; prompting the schools to be be built poorly and fragile, causing the schools to be hit especially hard by the tremors. As this was an issue caused by the corrupt government and it’s choice to subsidise the costs of building, they began to cover it up; prompting the deaths of the children to be covered up or not registered. Ai Wei Wei and his team went around finding out the names and age of the children that were killed, as well as buying the twisted Rebar that was the cause of the destruction. Straightening the Rebar by hand, and lining it up on the floor, within walls covered in the names of the children and a movie about the earthquake; the installation creates a morose and sombre atmosphere, as it reminds the viewer of death and corruption within China. The Rebar, in it’s lines, is reminiscent of waves as they lap against the shore; and is such a strange quality to draw out of straightened metal; yet, is a subtle yet hard remainder of the death.
A swarm of porcelain crabs stumble over each other in the corner of the room
The next room features a large sculpture within the middle of the room made from the demolished remains of Ai’s studio in Shanghai; in which he was prompted by the authorities to build a studio, and then was promptly told a year later that it would be demolished anyway, despite their previous approval. The way that China’s corrupt government seems to work boggles the mind; they seemingly act without reason or basic understanding, and do not care for their subjects at all, Especially Ai Wei Wei. The large minimalist piece in the centre of the room is a large and stark reminder of what had been; becoming almost like a memorial to the gone and forgotten studio. Despite the destruction, Ai Wei wei invited people to meet at the studio and dance and party, feasting on a large amount of fresh river crab from nearby. At the time, Ai Wei Wei was actually detained, and therefore could not be at the party. Yet, hundreds of friends and supporters of his turned up and proceeded to revel and party before the imminent destruction; celebrating, and mourning, the Studio. The density of the large memorial is what is most interesting; a block made from a number of recycled materials; the work stands hard and solid, a remainder of loss and destruction.
‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’, 1995
The thing about Ai Wei Wei, is that he draws massive inspiration from both Minimalism and dadaism. He is fascinated by the seemingly intrinsic value of crafted ornaments and pieces of artwork; especially priceless artifacts from China’s rich cultural history. I his piece; ‘dropping a Han dynasty Urn’, Ai, formally an antiques dealer, holds and then drops a priceless urn from the Han Dynasty period within china. He looks at the camera, a blank and callous expression on his face. His disregard for an ancient, and priceless, piece of culture mirrors the period in Chinese history when Chairman Mao was in power; and thousands of important artifacts and buildings were destroyed in his drive for economic development, on par with the western world. Another series of works of his, his ‘painted pots’, explores the relationship of the readymade, and the hand of the artist. Again, priceless urns and pots are utilised; yet, Ai explores the way that modifying objects can change the face value of them. The pots are still the priceless pots that they once were; yet, have been modified by the hand of an artist; and a culturally important one at that. Has the initial value of the pot been changed? It has not been damaged, yet has been modifed; surely, then, it should retain it’s original value, or even have been improved? Like ideas of Entropy, this object has been changed and seemingly gained the energy and value of two artisans. Yet, many would regard the pots as being ruined by Ai Wei wei, when in fact, he seeks to improve them.
Another piece; ‘Cao’ (meaning grass in Chinese and utilised as a means of replacing the swear words used online, in fear of censorship) explores the role of Marble as a precious object, as well as the traditional marble pieces from chinese history. It also explores, once again, the role of the artisan as an artist. Ai Wei Wei says about the piece; “During the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912], this grass field was used to feed the emperors’ horses. In Chinese poetry and literature, cao, or grass, is a frequently used reference to the common people, the masses. Grass is a force of nature, wild and everlasting. I thought it would be interesting, and a bit ironic, to create a monument of this common thing.” Ai understands the role of the common man in the success of a society, and highlights the importance of celebrating them, when his own government considers them little more than scum.
‘Puzzle Box’ 2014
‘One Ton of Tea’
‘Detail of the ‘Tea’ Block
Another room holds 4 cubes; one crafted of Tea, another of Crystal, yet another is a gigantic puzzle box, and the last, is a larger replica of a small black box given to Ai by his father as a child. The Crystal is monolithic and incredible; the sheer majesty of a block of crystal, cut to this level of perfection (yet, I believe, it is actually glass, yet the name of it implies that it is crystal, and causes a state of belief in those who view it). The puzzle box, again, large and impressive; it cannot be solved by the mere hands of one person; but involves a team of people who must know the intricaciesof its construction, and must take it apart to see each and every intricate detail within. Then, the block of tea, with its subtle earthy tones, and faint pleasant smell; is another beautiful object. It draws out the intrinsic beauty of such a simple object; of tea leaves, and their attraction and lustre to every human being.
A few images from within the installation
A fascinating exhibition, and one that had a profound effect on me when I went to see it, was ‘Yellowbluepink’ By Ann Veronica Jansens. A room filled with smoke and light, that utilises an expansive colour field and disorientation to make the viewer lose touch with the outside world, and become more tuned to their ‘inner self’ and consciousness. Using the minimal feedback of coloured light and mist to create an environment in which people perceive as little as possible. The artwork is quite simple in execution; a room is filled with a thick water vapour, creating an environment in which one cannot see much further than a foot in front of them. A series of different coloured lights, each in yellow, blue, and pink respectively, cause the water vapour to reflect the coloured light, causing a room in which the colour changes as one wanders aimlessly through the crowd. The feeling of wandering through the mist is unlike any other I had felt before; one is completely disorientated. Faint and ethereal figures appear in the mist every now and again, as well as voices and noises being heard, yet you are not aware as to where they originate. As there is very little feedback from your eyes, you rely on touch and sound a lot more; yet, you can not touch the mist, and the walls, being white, are near unidentifiable until you happen to brush against (or in my case bump into) them. As I wandered through the mist, I was taken back to previous iterations of ‘heaven’ or the afterlife that I had seen in various media. As I wandered aimlessly though the space, through the consuming colour, I felt myself almost ‘transcending’, as if the floor was going to give way at any moment and I was walking through nothingness. Another of my friends said that they felt like they were walking through a ‘cloud of thought’, and yet another said they were wandering through ‘nothing but pure colour, of formlessness’. The work is so subjective because of it’s simplicity and sheer minimalism, Janssens even stating about the work; ‘Nothing is more beautiful than a person’s own perception. I try to push it to it’s limits.’