Article by AJ Kiyoizumi in Berlin; Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2014
Ai Weiwei‘s internet presence, friction with the Chinese government, and now his 18-room solo show at Martin-Gropius-Bau and professorial status at Berlin’s University of the Arts has made him into one of our most accessible, talked-about, and beloved artists in the world.
The exhibition, titled Evidence, shows new works that have never before been shown in Germany. In the vast central hall, Stools (2014) greets a diverse crowd of museum-goers in a similar fashion to Sunflower Seeds, a piece Weiwei did for the Tate Modern from 2010-2011. Over 6,000 Ming and Qing dynasty wooden stools, some more battered than others, fill the entire courtyard, almost making another layer of the floor. The simple yet sturdy design legacy demonstrates much of the influence and concept in Weiwei’s work. Throughout the exhibition, we see many references to Chinese dynastic history, and the friction between the “western” world and modern Chinese life.
The Han Dynasty Vases with Auto-Paint demonstrate this agitation with a bit of irony, intrinsic to many of Weiwei’s works. Eight Neolithic vases are painted smooth with car paint, creating an attractive sheen that erases the vases aging textures. The vases now have a certain metallic brilliance that catches our attention more than the originals, both ruining the historic value of the objects and encasing them in a protective layer.
Weiwei’s previous artwork with similar-style vases had also welcomed the controversy and debate that he is known for stirring up and staring down. One of his previous works is a photo series showing him dropping an ancient Han dynasty urn and shattering it. When a recent visitor, also an artist, dropped one of Weiwei’s Colored Vases in his According to What? exhibition in Miami, Weiwei was the one criticized more than the man, who Weiwei pointed out, destroyed property (that some have valued up to $1 million) that was not his. However, the value of Weiwei’s art was now being called into question.
The straight-forward symbolism of many of Weiwei’s works have made him an artist that is easy to understand. The wall texts at Martin-Gropius-Bau tell of the objects presented, whether jade replicas of the handcuffs that Weiwei wore when he was detained, or the wallpapered mock IOU’s to those who donated money to help him pay his false tax fine. Sheer size and quantity are some of the factors that make his work emotional and effective. But repetition is beginning to be a problem for Weiwei as he becomes more and more successful worldwide. For an artist that has changed how the world looks at protest art, Weiwei’s branching off into different topics are at times successful — such as with his replica of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands — and at other times stale, such as Circle of Animals (2011), which requires so much of a backstory that it is almost a historical object rather than a work of art. The question of readymades and their legitimacy isn’t a new debate in the art world, but it is still a frustrating one.
Realistically, Weiwei’s problem isn’t whether his art holds enough meaning or substance — his problem is that his human rights virtually don’t exist. The “evidence” of his personal experiences as a dissident are the most memorable: he has recreated his personal cell where he was detained by Chinese authorities, and visitors can both enter the box or watch from the live video feed on a monitor outside. His various arrests, fines, questionings, and even assaults from the government are becoming common knowledge. He was not allowed to attend the opening of the show, extending even further the distance between us and his almost mythical status. We are paying €11 presumably because we admire or are curious about his protest art, yet what can money do for Weiwei now? Even donations for him to pay off the fabricated tax evasion fine by the Chinese authorities barely made a dent.
Contradiction is what makes Weiwei’s work so controversial and powerful, whether combining contradictory materials such as with his vases, or pointing out the hypocrisies of China’s government. We are not even allowed to take photos in the exhibition, though Weiwei himself has said that “Photos are a celebration of communication.” While Weiwei’s art is easy to digest and popular, it’s imperfect. But imperfections are part of human nature. We have praised Weiwei enough to make him into some kind of martyr for free speech in China and the world. We all accept his evidence and stand behind him theoretically, but what does it take for us to actually get his rights realized rather than extending gestures of support such as liking his Instagram photos and awarding him a professorship in absentia? This is the frustration that comes with a wave of shame as we see the exhibition, walk past the Topography of Terror and the remnants of the Berlin Wall, and go home to check for Facebook notifications.
“Evidence” – AI WEIWEI
Exhibition: Apr. 03 – Jul. 7, 2014
Niederkirchnerstraße 7 (click here for map)