Grapes (detail) 2010
The Toronto International Film Festival is wrapping up this weekend. Two weeks of long lines, premieres and celebrity filled red carpet cotillions will soon be over. Our cult-like worship of celebrity will be satisfied for yet another year. Many big names graced our northern clime this season, but I would have to say the brightest star in Toronto right now, would be Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Unfortunately, the artist couldn’t personally make it to Toronto for the opening of his show: According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario but his presence is definitely being felt.
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995/2009
See, the thing with Ai Weiwei is; he is kind of an independent spirit living in an oppressive environment. These two elements tend to butt heads when directly confronting one another; and Ai Weiwei literally has the scares to prove it. Targeted by the Chinese government for his political activism, Weiwei has had his freedoms dramatically reduced, including not being able to leave China. You might think that a person who has suffered physical assault and wrongful incarceration (80 days) at the hands of his government would have nothing but negative things to say about China, but Ai Weiwei (in his art) can separate country from state and history from politics. The genius of Ai Weiwei’s work is that he can both celebrate and condemn his homeland in equal measures.
China Log 2005
China has a spellbinding history with countless contributions to the pantheon of art. Dynasties have come and gone, each leaving evidence behind of their innovations and legacy. Weiwei assimilates their historical artifacts into his assemblages. He recycles the materials and working methods of the past to both pay homage and re-contextualize our relationship with objects. In both China Log and Kippe the sculptures are made up of salvaged pieces from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples. The map of China has been hollowed out of the core of China Log. The log itself has been assembled using traditional Chinese joining techniques utilizing eight separate temple pillars. The core of Kippe consists of playground parallel bars commenting on the artist’s memories of childhood.
Ai Weiwei uses traditional materials in new and unexpected ways, whether it is his supreme unfolding stool of Grapes or his Teahouse. The Tea Houses are exactly as they are named; houses made using a ton of tea each. The delightful thing about experiencing these structures in the gallery is the aroma. Every piece in According to What? has a dual role. They first arrest you with their aesthetic and then subtly play on your emotions.
The other side of Ai Weiwei’s art is to raise a critical finger at the injustices of the world. Weiwei also mines China’s recent past and his filter of nostalgia has been replaced with tragedy and injustice. On May 12th, 2008 a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan province in China killing approximately 90 000 people. A horrific event that went virtually unnoticed by the entire planet. The tragedy was made worse by substandard building practices, especially hard hit were the schools where countless children lost their lives. The government minimized the event in the press and wouldn’t release the names of the dead. For a free spirit like Ai Weiwei, this was unacceptable. He and his team started looking for the lost names and posting them to his blog, which was eventually shut down by the government. In the exhibition, one wall of the gallery is devoted to the names of these lost children. Along with the names sits a massive pile of rebar that forms waves on the floor (Straight 2008-2012). Each metal bar was salvaged from the earthquake wreckage and then manually straightened.
Ceiling Snake (2009) is made using 100’s of children’s backpacks.
The beauty of Weiwei’s work is the balance he strikes between the old and the new and the sublime and the tragic. At his worse he can delve into the sculptural equivalent to a visual parlor trick like: Forever or Moon Chest. They’re fun to look at but ultimately don’t resonate as much as the other work which can be beautiful, complicated and haunting. He helped shed light on a tragic event, bringing dignity to the departed and was ultimately persecuted for his convictions. The role of the artist is to interpret the world we live in for good and bad. Weiwei shows us at our best and our worst and we should thank him for it.
Moon Chest (detail) 2009
Ai Weiwei ‘s According to What? is definitely a must see.