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Dissident’s Brush with Authority

Artist Ai Weiwei ... a hugely influential figure in China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Photos below by Dennis Kaliser

The exhibition, titled Maybe, Maybe Not, was a call to each and every one of us to be informed members of civic society, to maintain a vigilant and critical state of mind, to cast doubt, to take nothing for granted.

"In this age of tectonic shifts in the geopolitical area, Ai Weiwei's questions may be more relevant than ever: 'Is what we are told true? Is what we see real? Maybe, maybe not …'" (quoted from a flier distributed to visitors at the museum).

Born in Beijing in 1957, Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese artist living today. As an activist, he calls attention to human rights violations on an epic scale; as an artist, he expands the definition of art to include new forms of social engagement. In a country where free speech is not recognized as a right, the police have beaten him up, kept him under house arrest, bulldozed his newly-built studio and subjected him to surveillance. He is viewed as a threat to "harmonious society". The West did not invent revolutionaries. China has an illustrious history of dissidents, anti-authoritarian originals and eccentrics, from the drunken monks of pre-history to counter-culture artists living in today's Beijing. Ai himself is from this long line of free-thinkers and writers, marginalized both by the right and left. From smashing an ancient vase to reciting the names of children who died due to government negligence, Ai's dramatic actions highlight the widening gap between the ideal and the real in Chinese society. He is also one of the earliest conceptual artists to use social media – Instagram and Twitter, in particular – as one of his primary media. 

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2015) made of LEGO-style plastic bricks

His father was a poet and prominent intellectual, and was proclaimed an enemy of the people under Mao Tse-tung's regime. The family was exiled to a labor camp when he was a year old. The family lived in exile for twenty years, in small villages near the North Korean border and in the province of Xinjiang, where his father was forced to carry out hard labor, including cleaning communal toilets. In order to survive as a child, Ai learned many of the practical skills that he would later apply to his art – such as making furniture and bricks. He says of his childhood that "living conditions were extremely harsh, and education was almost non-existent". The family had been able to keep only one book, a large encyclopedia – Ai's only source of information and education.

Only in 1976 were they allowed back to Beijing when his father was rehabilitated. Ai Weiwei began his career in Beijing, taking part in exhibitions and artists' acts of protest against the government and calling for artistic freedom.

He left China for the U.S. in 1981, eventually settling in New York where he lived for ten years, drawing inspiration from Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and building his standing as an artist.

He returned to China in 1993 and became involved with the early Chinese avant-garde, organising exhibitions and publishing underground books. He started blogging on the Internet and became a popular voice on political, aesthetic and societal concerns. 

Trees installation constructed from parts of dead trees

Today he is a hugely influential figure in China and one of the most important artists of our time. In 2011 he was arrested for his activism and imprisoned without trial for 81 days. After his release, severe restrictions were imposed on him and his studio was placed under surveillance.

As we entered the first hall exhibiting Ai Weiwei's work, we were confronted with a floor covered in sunflower seeds made from porcelain.

It took more than 1,600 artisans in Jingdezhen (the town that once made the imperial porcelain for over a thousand years) two and a half years to manufacture this huge pile of ceramic husks out of the kaolin from local mountains. After a striking 30-step procedure, each seed, hand-painted and fired at 1,300 degrees, is unique and unpredictable. "This is perhaps the most costly work among all artworks, both Chinese and Western," Ai Weiwei said.

"Historically, the town's only activity has been making porcelain ware for over 1,000 years. The super-high-quality skill for generations has been making imperial porcelain ware," he said. "In modern days, however, it has become very commercialized."

Harnessing traditional craft skills, each seed was molded, fired, and painted with three or four individual brush strokes, often by women taking the objects home to work on them. One thousand six hundred people were involved in the process. "Even taxi drivers were talking about it," he said.

"I tried to explain to [the artisans] what we wanted them for, but they found it very difficult to understand," said Ai. "Everything they usually make is practical, and the painters are used to creating classically beautiful flowers. He said that the workers had been paid a living wage – in fact slightly more than customary – to work on the project. Now they are asking when we can start again," he said. "I shall have to think of a new project."

The seeds were also potent symbols of the Cultural Revolution. The characterization of Mao as the sun and the faithful as sunflowers turning to face him was commonplace. The association here with the hopes and savage disappointments of the time, both spiritual and material, was unmistakable. Tate's decision to stop visitors walking on the work three days after it opened – a result of health concerns about inhalation of porcelain dust – increased this sense of sorrow and stillness. It reinforced allusions both to ash, with its connotations of cremation, and to the fundamental tensions between the individual and the collective in Chinese society, as the field of seeds, seemingly identical yet each unique, laid dormant.

There was also a related personal association. Ai's father, the poet Ai Qing, was classified as an enemy of the revolution in 1957, resulting in a harsh exile in Xinjiang Province, where sunflower seeds were one of the few dietary luxuries. Among the exiles there, the sharing of seeds provided a moment of covert community solidarity. Ai has early memories of his mother hulling seeds with her teeth, proficiently preserving the kernel – the seeds still communicate such simple acts of pleasure in an increasingly complex world.

The work poses questions about the power of the individual – singly or en masse. It raises questions of mass production, the current source of China's economic power and influence, versus individual craft. It's tempting to view the work as seeds of inspiration planted by the artist that might grow into democracy. Yet the fake seeds "will never grow", Ai said in a filmed interview.

Ai's famous 1995 black-and-white photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, in which the artist stares into the camera while shattering an ancient ceramic relic at his feet, is remade at grand scale in Lego bricks.

Members of the general public and the wider art community continue to support Ai Weiwei. In October 2015, for example, when Lego refused Ai a large shipment of blocks (on the grounds that it doesn't endorse political art), hundreds of Ai's followers sent their own Legos to the artist, via mail and official collection points. The entire event was organized through social media.

This wallpaper was a reference to Ai Weiwei's photographic series Study of Perspective (1995), which shows the artist with a raised middle finger in locations such as at the White House.

The Golden Age wallpaper depicts the Twitter logo, handcuffs and surveillance cameras, inspired by Weiwei's interest in social media, but also his detainment and the twenty surveillance cameras installed at his home by the authorities.

For the installation of the trees, Ai Weiwei sourced parts of dead trees originating from the mountains of southern China. Skilled carpenters then spent months reassembling all the different bits into complete trees again in Weiwei's Beijing studio, using traditional hidden mortise-and-tenon joints. Industrial nuts and bolts were added to reinforce the structure. The trees are far more than just a beautifully crafted installation. As stated in the exhibition catalogue: "These artificial constructions have been interpreted as a commentary on the Chinese nation, in which geographically and culturally diverse peoples have been brought together to form 'One China' in a state-sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The woolen carpet, Soft Ground, covered a surface of 380 square meters. The pattern of Soft Ground is a faithful reproduction of the 969 stone floor tiles. In order to reconstruct the floor tiles exactly – including the traces left by 70 years of activity – each tile was first photographed and its position recorded. Handmade in a weaving mill in Hebei province, Soft Ground serves as a kind of buffer protecting the floor and also creating an acoustic effect.

The day was concluded with a musical performance in the auditorium by Nitza Termin singing a selection of Ladino songs. Nitza, a fluent Ladino speaker, was the lead singer of the Southern Command troupe and upon completion of her military service, she recorded dozens of Spanish romance songs at the Kol Yisrael radio station in order to preserve the Ladino song culture. 

New Victims, 2016, by Zoya Cherkassky: See below

After viewing the Ai Weiwei installations, the group moved on to another hall where the art of another dissident artist, Zoya Cherkassy, was being exhibited.

Zoya Cherkassy was born in 1976 in Kiev and immigrated to Israel in 1991.

Pravda is her first solo exhibition. The exhibition included some 50 paintings and 50 works on paper. Her work has focused on the experiences of Jews like herself, and addresses her personal experiences and the collective experience of the million-strong Russian immigrant influx to Israel in the early 1990s. In works that are at times provocative, humorous, and defiant, she reflects a cultural encounter that sometimes places an unsettling mirror before Israeli society. 



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Sunday, 21 April 2024

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