Sunday 14 August 2016

Ai Weiwei at the Cycladic


Ai Weiwei,

at the Cycladic Museum, Vassilisis Sofias, Athens.


In December 2015, Ai Weiwei visited the island of Mytilene (known as Lesbos outside Greece), the main gateway for hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Europe, to get a picture of the situation on the island and of the condition of the refugees arriving there. He setup a studio  and regularly documented their dangerous journey on his Instagram. In February he draped Berlin's concert hall with 14,000 refugee life jackets. More recently, he filmed a Syrian refugee playing the piano in the middle of a refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border where tens of thousands of refugees still remain stranded at the border, as routes to Western Europe are increasingly closed off.

Artist and political activist, a brave and unrelenting critic of China's authoritarian regime, Weiwei has spent time in jail, was not allowed by the government to leave Beijing for a year and cannot travel without official permission. As a result, he has become a symbol of the struggle for human rights in China., combining his life and art into a daring and politically charged performance. He uses sculpture, ready-mades, photography, performance, architecture, tweets and blogs to deliver his message. He once said: 'I call on people to be 'obsessed citizens', forever questioning and asking for accountability. That's the only chance we have today of a healthy and happy life'.

This is his first exhibition in Greece: 10% of all takings will be donated to refugees across the country.

We had seen some of the exhibited works last year at the Royal Academy retrospective which you can see here . There is also a number of new works which are a result of Weiwei's stay in Mytilene, as well as a new marble sculpture inspired by the archaeological collection in the museum.

Divina Proportione

Thought to be based on Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of polyhedral. However, in tongue-in-cheek manner, Weiwei claims to have first encountered the shape in the form of a toy that his cats played with. Based on geometry and mathematical precision, Divina Proportione is an exultation of classical ideals of proportion and harmony.


Grapes, 2011 (11 wooden stools)
Weiwei's manipulation of these antique stools from the Qing dynasty is an example of neither destruction nor restoration, but rather transformation; the stools have been carefully disassembled and then conjoined anew as a single entity. This new, absurd assemblage, which renders every stool useless as seating, liberates the stool from its familiar context and utilitarian function. It becomes art.
They subvert instituted notions of culture and of the role and form of art and everyday objects.

Chandelier, 2015 (copper, crystal and light fixtures)

This work is part of a series of large-scale chandeliers that Weiwei begun in 2002. It was started at a time when China began moving from an impoverished society to one of relative affluence. During this period, chandeliers in particular came to signify prosperity and luxury, becoming increasingly popular. According to the artist, another inspiration for this work was a scene in Sergei Eisenstein's 1928 film October, in which the shaking crystal chandelier suggests the instability of a society undergoing profound change. Here, Weiwei presents a more skeptical view of modern-day China's expansion and perceived 'progress'.

Rebar and Case, 2014, (huali wood, marble and foam)
This work refers to the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that tore through China's Sichuan province, killing thousands. Ten days after the disaster took place, Weiwei led a team to survey and film the post-quake conditions in several of the disaster zones. Many of the casualties were caused by substandard  construction, which had led to the wholesale destruction of the buildings containing hundreds of trapped students. In response to the government's lack of transparency in revealing names and the exact number of school children who perished in the earthquake, he launched a 'Citizen's Investigation' to gather information on the young victims. 'We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them', his manifesto read. As of 14 April 2009, the list had accumulated 5,385 names.
Rebar and Case is a metaphorical memorial to the lost children. Weiwei designed small caskets out of Huali wood in jagged shapes. Encased within or sitting on top of each of these is a marble rebar, a pure white replica of the warped steel reinforcing bars that he collected from the site of the poorly built schools.
The twisted forms of the rebar painfully evoke the destruction caused by the earthquake. These mangled relics of disaster and tragedy are here transformed into elegant, highly crafted mementos - an ironic ode to the cheap, deadly infrastructures that they mimic.

Surveillance Camera with Plinth, 2015 (marble)

In 2011 Ai Weiwei disappeared for 81 days. He was detained in a secret prison by the authorities and was eventually released on bail with no explanation. Since 2009, his Beijing studio has been under constant surveillance, with fifteen cameras dotted around the compound recording his every move.

The Animal That Looks like a Llama but is really an Alpaca (colour wallpaper)

Cao, 2014, (marble)

A field of white marble grass, a visual paradox. The word 'cao' has several meanings, depending on its pronunciation: its literal translation is 'grass', but it can also be used pejoratively as an insult. Here, the artist defends this common, unrefined subject matter, celebrating the ubiquity, resilience and wildness of the grass by building a monument to it. He uses it as an image for the common, subjugated people of China, society's grass roots. By making grass that will not wilt or die, he seems to convey the idea that hope can spring eternally within that which is common and insignificant.

Mask, 2011 (marble)

Beijing has experienced record-breaking levels of air pollution which, at certain peak recorded times, have exceeded the World Health Organisations' safety limit by over 40 times. These blankets of smog hanging over the city caused a surge in sales of protective gas masks and face masks.

The mask becomes a faceless, bleak symbol, alluding to the anonymity inflicted by the Communist regime in China, under which Weiwei grew up. During the Cultural Revolution, standardised clothing was implemented and the Communist troops issued uniforms to workers across all industries: the grey tunic and trousers, dubbed the 'Mao suit', replaced everyday clothing in China. A gas mask, which conceals the wearer's face, is comparable to this prohibited individuality and the people's subservience to autocratic regimes that govern their lives.

Standing Figure, 2016, (marble)
This is a new work, specifically created for the exhibition at the Cycladic.

The work directly references marble figurines of the Early Cycladic period (2800-2300 BC). The figure's arms, which in the original Cycladic manner are crossed at the chest, are here outstretched, hands wide apart.

Tyre, 2016 (marble)

This work was made for the exhibition in response to his experiences in Lesbos as he witnessed the unfolding refugee crisis. He places the spotlight on a simple rubber lifebuoy ring of which many litter the shores of Lesbos, washed up on the beach. Tyre becomes symbolic of life and death; sometimes life-saving, yet also testament to the poor conditions and risk which the refugees face.

Finger, (black and white wallpaper)

Zodiac Boat, 2016, (colour photograph)

Floating, 2016 (video)


Study of Perspective, 2014, (black and white and colour prints)

An extensive photographic series that mimics the tourist documentary impulse of showing that 'I was there' by having one's photo taken in front of famous monuments. The simple yet irreverent gesture expresses the artist's attitude to authority and also conveys a particular perspective on power systems. The images demand viewers to challenge their own unquestioning deference towards establishment, authority, governments and institutions.

Iphone Wallpaper, 2016

looking closer

On the Boat, 2016 (colour video)

At Sea, 2016, (colour video)

During his stay in Lesbos Ai Weiwei visited an exhibition by the Photographic Society of Mytilene that showed the refugee crisis through the eyes of local residents and professional photographers. More than 600 of these photographs are shown in the exhibition, but this will be the subject of another post.


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