Friday, August 14th, 2015

Exonerating The Present: Ai Weiwei Builds a Temple in Beijing

Robert Morgan, who reviewed Ai’s show at Alcatraz for artcritical in April, catches up with the artist-activist on the eve of a rare show in the Chinese capital.

Ai Weiwei at Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center

June 6 to September 6, 2015
798 District, Beijing

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015 at Tang Contemporary Beijing
Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015 at Tang Contemporary Beijing

It was clear that a distracted Ai Weiwei was in no mood for a formal interview. We met as scheduled at the Beijing East Hotel May 30th, which was to have been the opening day of his historic first solo gallery exhibition in Beijing. But given this date’s proximity to the 26th anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4th, the government had decided to reschedule the opening to June 6th. This was intended to forestall the possibility of dissenters congregating in the 798 gallery district with his show as an unruly rallying point.

In spite of such tumultuous concerns, Ai was willing to talk informally for an hour. As conversation progressed his mood gradually lightened. He wanted to speak not only about the importance of the immediate exhibition, but about the direction of his art merging with architecture, including his clear-sighted view that, in the future, art will be shown in locations other than commercial art galleries. Wise, rational and open-minded, Ai’s delivery was filled with joie de vivre.

For more than two decades, Ai has invariably turned down invitations to participate in exhibitions of his work in China. Clearly, the artist’s decision constitutes a critical comment and a continuing standoff with the Chinese government, which now appears to have found a hiatus. On July 22, his passport was finally returned after being taken from him during his 2011incarceration. Taking the position of an artist/activist, Ai sees his art (and architecture) as being inseparable from everyday life – a life in which politics plays an incisive role. Since his return to Beijing in 1993, after more than twelve years in the United States, much of his practice has turned toward issues of free speech and civil rights. In addition to an ongoing struggle to promote the quality of life among ordinary people in China, he maintains a rigorous schedule in preparing major exhibitions being held outside China. These have included recent museum retrospectives in Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as forthcoming exhibitions originating this September in Melbourne and London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

Photo of Ai Weiwei by Robert C. Morgan
Photo of Ai Weiwei by Robert C. Morgan

Even so, the artist’s desire to secure freedom with relative autonomy as a citizen was persistently thwarted, until recently, by the government. This came to worldwide attention in 2011 when he was detained by government officials, ostensibly on charges of tax evasion, and subsequently held in isolation for 81 days. During this period his whereabouts were unknown, even to his close family. This occurred on the aftermath of an incident involving police brutality from which he received a serious, nearly fatal concussion. According to statements sent from the artist’s blog (later shut down), the officer’s attack was incited because of Ai’s relentless, outspoken critique of government culpability in the Sichuan earthquake of 2009 in which buildings of inferior construction collapsed, costing the lives of thousands of people, including over 5000 children buried in the rubble of government-built grade schools.

In the New York art world of 1970s, where I first became aware of political art, there was a presumption that an artist denounce aesthetics to become “political” – that the message would be corrupted if one permitted beauty in the work. In refreshing contrast to such a position, Ai carefully examines and edits every object produced in his sprawling self-designed studio in the Caochangdi district of Beijing. He is closely involved with his studio staff, supervising exquisitely lacquered hard wood furnishings, glazed ceramics, tree-cut assemblages, and various assisted ready-mades, among other works. Even the carefully painted porcelain sunflower seeds, of which thousands were sent to the Turbine Hall at Tate London, were personally inspected. The precision and accuracy of these works are intended to empower the authority and to affect his message.

Having closely observed the rise and fall of trends in Chinese contemporary art in relation to the global market, the artist openly resents the coverage being given to his sales (one of which recently passed the $6M mark). As a result, Ai has been forced to confront the often insipid and superficial marketing of his art – a market that runs on an ulterior track where qualitative standards are utterly usurped by the tyranny of branding (not so far removed from where the New York art market has been moving in recent years). For Ai, names and prices are secondary, if not misleading in relation to the more vital and challenging ideas that his work is striving to put forth. As he said in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2011:

My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.

On the occasion of his first official gallery exhibition in China, the artist was given two adjacent 798 district galleries , Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center. As a partial homage to his father, the famous poet Ai Qing, the artist visited the southeastern area of China, to Zhejiang and Jinhwa (his father’s town) in search of an Anhui-style building from the late Ming Dynasty. The building he found, the Wang Family Ancestral Hall, was originally from the neighboring Jianxi province. It had been destroyed during the previous century and was, in its current state, partially restored. This type of building was known in Chinese as a shitang, or community center, a kind of temple, which at one time had deep significance for Chinese people as a place to gather and converse. It took five large trucks to transport the 1500 wooden pieces of the building from Zhejiang to Beijing.

Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015, at Galleria Continua, Beijing
Ai Weiwei, Wang Family Ancestral Hall, 2015, at Galleria Continua, Beijing

The reconstruction of the Anhui building within the interior spaces of the two adjacent galleries required the work of two teams of designers and several groups of experienced and specialized construction workers. In effect, the supporting wall between the two galleries was virtually destroyed in order to reconstruct this Ming Dynasty building intact and yet separated between  their respective spaces. This heroic endeavor recalls the monumental feats and aesthetic clarity that once characterized ancient Imperial building projects. Ai is careful to point out that all material aspects of the structure, from beams to joints, are entirely in wood. As the artist wants to show this shitang from the perspective of the present in relation to the past, he has painted decorative motifs in bright colors on various parts of the joinery. This immediately recalls Ai’s earlier painting of Neolithic vessels, which he dipped into large vats of enamel paint.

Although I had been invited to the original opening before leaving New York, my travel itinerary would not allow staying until the new opening date. Even so, the impression I gleaned of the frantic construction as to what was happening within and between the two galleries was extraordinary. The basic structure was elegantly pierced through the space from one gallery to the other. The foundational stones and beams were in place, but a lot of work still had to be done. Men were working around the clock; some took breaks, scattered amidst the construction detritus and remnants of materials, sleeping on canvas tarpaulins, uttering occasional exhausted moans.

Three days later, Ai’s shitang arose into prominence from the massive complexity of its construction. It was seen by hundreds of visitors, mostly younger Chinese, on opening day. The piece functions as a deeply potent symbol – a rite of passage one could say – lying at the core of Chinese culture today: how to exonerate the present from turmoil and pain associated with the previous century. The rebuilt edifice within a shared open space shines as a beacon of rejuvenation. It signals a new era caught in the throes of confronting the past while in pursuit of an optimistic, yet unknown future.