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Culture Matters: Contemporary Art as a Philosophy of Society

December 12, 2009

My T. Le

Ai Weiwei: According to What?
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
July 25, 2009–November 8, 2009

After an exhibition introducing young Chinese contemporary artists, Follow Me!, in 2005, the Mori Art Museum is presenting its first retrospective dedicated to a Chinese contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, entitled Ai Weiwei: According to What? This is one of Ai Weiwei’s largest solo shows ever held.

The choice of Ai Weiwei was easy to make, according to Mami Kataoka, Mori Art Museum Chief Curator. “Ai Weiwei is a distinguished artist in contemporary China in many ways, including his interdisciplinary activities and awareness of the social and political conditions of his own surroundings.”1

Ai Weiwei’s body of work over the past 20 years—installations, sculpture, design, photography, and films produced from combinations of materials and mediums and reminiscent of minimal/conceptual art—is about Chinese culture, history and society. His formal and analytical approach to creating new structures from ready-made and prefabricated objects leads the viewer to challenge traditional thinking about art and the role of the artist. From the particular relations between the basic architectural elements emerges a form dense or open, the understanding of which becomes the basis of endless conceptual perceptions.

The choice of materials and the use of traditional techniques show his determination to highlight in these artworks both his “Chineseness” and his active subversion of it….

In the first part of the exhibition, “Fundamental Forms and Volumes,” cubes and other polygonal shapes occupy the exhibition hall in a logical sequence using one meter as reference. Deprived of any particular use, the only goal of these geometric structures,inspired by the works of Sol LeWitt or Donald Judd,seems to be to engage the minds of viewers rather than their emotions.

“History is always the missing part of the puzzle in everything we do. I think we are coming from a long history and especially today, at the time of information age …. For the first time, we have an opportunity to know so much more and to understand mankind better, and what we have been through in the past.”—Ai Weiwei

In Cube in Ebony (2009) and Ton of Tea (2006), Ai Weiwei has produced two black cubes, which are one cubic meter in size. Cube in Ebony is made of carved rosewood boards several centimeters thick. Rosewood, which is a traditionally favored material for carving in China because of its hardness and density, has been considered one of the “three precious woods” since the Tang dynasty. The cube has been assembled according to traditional Chinese artisan techniques. Ton of Tea is made from Pu’er tea leaves, which were compressed into different forms, including disks and bricks, to ferment after picking. Representing the main unit in terms of weight and size, the material of this piece remains unchanged—a block of fermenting tea leaves.

The black cubes with minimalist shapes seem to be anode to geometry, creating a direct relation with the space that surrounds them. The real intent of the artist—whether it is a theoretical, philosophical, political, or poetic proposal—rests with the viewer, as he or she experiences the artwork as physical object and idea. Sol LeWitt wrote, “In conceptual art, the idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work.”2 For Ai Weiwei these ascetic shapes illustrate both the artist’s relationship with Chinese culture and traditions and contemporary art.

The backpacks, used as ready-made, are challenging the original function of these everyday objects, and forcing them to be seen in a new way. They symbolize the thousands of schoolchildren crushed in shoddily-built schools in Beichuan County.

“My work relates to how to use our daily experience and our knowledge about our own history, and cultural surroundings; to use that language in contemporary conditions,” declared Ai Weiwei.3

The choice of materials and the use of traditional techniques show his determination to highlight in these artworks both his “Chineseness” and his active subversion of it, as in Bowl of Pearls (2006). This sculpture consists of a pair of bowls one meter in diameter filled with freshwater pearls. While abundance of pearls can symbolize wealth and provoke a strong desire, the large number displayed in the bowl is such that it triggers an opposite feeling. The feeling of value and preciousness commonly associated with pearls, when displayed in a small quantity, is replaced by an ordinary feeling despite the pearls’ inner beauty.

In the second section of the exhibition, “Structures and Craftsmanship,” basic forms are challenged. The art-works are developed in space through modularity and a combination of elements that require the viewer to interact. The highly sophisticated polygons have been replaced by basic building elements using highly skilled craftsmanship. The series of works on display in this section, deconstructing architectural models and objects, are evocative of the artist’s interest in Chinese heritage material and culture.

“I think in history, through art, and through all man-made activities, we not only apply craftsmanship because we want to overcome all the difficulties, but through craftsmanship, we have better understanding of ourselves and our own positions,” says Ai Weiwei.4 “If we push the boundaries of craftsmanship and artisanship, we see that they are not just mechanical skills,but they are actually an exploration of the very nature of the materials they employ.”

In Map of China (2008) multiple blocks of wood are assembled using traditional Chinese joinery techniques to form a map of the Middle Kingdom. The visible features of all blocks and the demarcation lines between them refer to the creation of modern China, when all regions with multiple historical, cultural, and political differences merged to create one single country. The elongated wood beams shaping the map are so high that the viewer must first pay attention to them and their unique features before creating any narrative. The beams seem to evoke the extent of Chinese history,whose roots run deep in the past. However, the map built on a flat surface leads the viewer to think that by flattening all construction elements, all differences have been erased.

Yet, the act of dropping an ancient urn, thus destroying two-thousand years of tradition, culture, and history, refers to the role destruction plays in redefining art as well as culture.

The third section of the exhibition, “Reforming and Inheriting Tradition,” leads us to discover another aspect of the artist’s body of works, reflecting on art, its meaning, and its role in our society and culture. Using a wide range of mediums, the artist shares his attraction to ancient Chinese art and symbols while dissociating preconceived ideas about art from the physical presence of objects.

“History is always the missing part of the puzzle in everything we do,” stated Ai Weiwei.5 “I think we are coming from a long history and especially today, at the time of information age. But we have not only under-stood our own past but also different pasts from different nations and different cultural backgrounds. For the first time, we have an opportunity to know so much more and to understand mankind better, and what we have been through in the past.”

The visible features of all blocks and the demarcation lines between them refer to the creation of modern China,when all regions with multiple historical, cultural, and political differences merged to create one single country.

In Forever (2003), 42 “Forever”-brand bicycles have been assembled in a circle in the middle of the room,creating a sculptural installation that shows a strong architectural influence. Unlike other works using wood beams, the bicycles are tightly joined, preventing the viewer from walking through or under them.

Playing on the name of the object, like Marcel Duchamp’s own language names, Ai Weiwei explores the multiple meanings of the assembled bicycles. Although the bicycles have lost their regular use and purpose, they still provide a sense of protection, unity,and harmony. But at the same time, this installation looks like a heroic and frivolous act of resistance, echoing the slow disappearance of bicycles—including those built by the once-leading manufacturer of bicycles in China—from all major Chinese cities as the country is modernizing.

In Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), the artist has staged the act of dropping a Han dynasty urn on the floor. In this series of pictures, the artist is seen inaction with no facial expression, as if the urn’s value was nil from both a cultural and historical perspective. Photographing the artist’s performance while destroying the object is the ultimate goal, as it becomes a conceptual piece of art.

Yet, the act of dropping an ancient urn, thus destroying two-thousand years of tradition, culture, and history,refers to the role destruction plays in redefining art as well as culture. In this series of pictures, planes and perspectives are left aside. Surface disappears. The status of the object (its coherence, its limits, etc.…) is challenged by new ideas and values, anthropological and social, emerging through art.

But is it art? Is this urn real or fake? What is the value related to it? For Ai Weiwei the key questions are what is really new and what is the method of making something new? Can we even make something new?

His iconoclastic method of shattering traditional values,cultural and political authority, and power is also shown in Snake Ceiling (2009). “This new work reflects his activities related to last year’s Sichuan earthquake,” says Mami Kataoka.6 Backpacks commonly used by elementary and middle school students are displayed in a serpentine shape suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition hall as if students were walking in pairs one behind the other.

“I think in history, through art, and through all man-made activities, we not only apply craftsmanship because we want to overcome all the difficulties, but through craftsmanship, we have better understanding of ourselves and our own positions . . . .” —Ai Weiwei

The backpacks are challenging the original function of these everyday objects, and forcing them to be seen in anew way. They symbolize the thousands of schoolchildren crushed in shoddily built schools in Beichuan County. The serpentine shape hanging from the ceiling refers to traditional Chinese representation of the dragon, flying in the clouds, successfully overcoming difficulties.

Ai Weiwei’s interest in architecture is a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition. His recent multimedia works increasingly reflect his political and social engagement, from urban development to human rights issues. For example, in Fairytale (2007), he brought to the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, 1,001 Chinese participants to take part in a project focused on the individual experience of life as citizens of a Communist country where the importance of the individualism non-existent. As the impact of the project still resonates for participants long after the event itself, Ai Weiwei has described Fairytale as a much more interesting, rewarding project than any other.7

The real intent of the artist—whether it is a theoretical, philosophical, political, or poetic proposal—rests with the viewer as he or she experiences the artwork as physical object and idea.

“The aim of art is not being political but, according to Ai Weiwei’s approach, contemporary art is about finding who you are, and what you do,” says Mami Kataoka.8 “This fundamental approach naturally brings you to the question of one’s own life and reason for living.” And she adds: “This is something making Ai not political but sensitively political and socially aware.”

Notes:

1. Excerpts from interview of Mami Kataoka by My T. Le, September 2009. ^

2. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5 (Summer 1967). ^

3. Ai Weiwei, Commentary in audio guide to According to What? exhibition, July 2009. ^

4. Ibid. ^

5. Ibid. ^

6. Excerpts from interview of Mami Kataoka by My T. Le, September 2009. ^

7. Nataline Colonello, “An interview with Ai Weiwei,” Artzine, August 10, 2007. ^

8. Excerpts from interview of Mami Kataoka by My T. Le, September 2009. ^

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