By Aileen Burns
Alexander Ochs Gallery
Oct. 7 - Nov. 20, 2010
Ai Weiwei’s practice is as wide-ranging as they come. This Beijing-based artist, architect, mentor and activist is admired as much for his politicized Twittering as for his ambitious installations such as the sea of porcelain sunflower seeds currently covering the Turbine Hall in London’s Tate Modern. His recent house arrest in Beijing is officially aimed at preventing him from throwing a big party to mark the demolition of his new Shanghai studio, but Weiwei believes it is punishment for his activism. His life and politics continually bleed into his art practice, inspiring some works and creating roadblocks for others.
Given the artist’s broad interests and diverse approaches to creative practice, perhaps I should not have been surprised that an exhibition simply titled A Few Works from Ai Weiwei would comprise a hodgepodge of more-or-less related works. Pieces date from as early as 1986 – when the artist was living in New York and first experimenting with found objects like the rubber rain gear, condoms and his own body – to the more recent video work commemorating the 4,851 child-victims of the Sichuan earthquake who were killed when their school collapsed.
A faint organic scent of tea permeates the exhibition. The main space of the gallery is dominated by the installation Tea House (2009), which consists of more than four hundred 20 cm-cubed bricks of Pu-erh tea stacked to form a small, impenetrable teahouse surrounded by a moat of dry, deep brown, loose-leaf tea. The carpet of crunchy foliage begs to be walked on and picked up, and the house approached and sniffed. Unfortunately, the gallery has erred on the side of caution, forbidding full immersion in the work. The Tate Modern had also originally intended to let visitors immerse themselves in Weiwei’s ocean of porcelain sunflower seeds. However, when they realized the danger of the dust created by these un-glazed miniatures crunching under foot and rubbing against one another, they quickly put an end to the fun.
The most moving works in the show are those related to the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked China’s Sichuan Province in 2008. On one wall of a small, transitional space in the gallery are backlit scans of a cerebral hemorrhage. Wei incurred the injuries when he went to Chengdu to attend the trial of Tan Zuoren, a fellow earthquake activist being charged with inciting subversion of the state. Police prevented Wei from showing his support when they stormed his hotel room the night before the trial. A struggle with three or four officers resulted in Weiwei being punched in the face and hit in the head. After the struggle, the artist, and eleven other volunteers and assistants, were brought to another hotel and held until Tan’s trial concluded. The images of his injuries, taken by doctors in Munich some weeks after the trauma have become part of a body of works relating to the government’s refusal to release information about people killed during the earthquake. Other works in the room at Alexander Ochs include a print of all of the names of children lost when their school collapsed, and a video tribute in which these victims’ names scroll down the screen accompanied by music composed by Zuoxiao Zuzhouo, written in their honour. Unfortunately, documentation of the most ambitious work related to the quake is not present. Remembering (2009) is an installation, first shown on the exterior façade of Haus Der Kunst in Berlin, of hundreds of brightly coloured children’s backpacks arranged to quote a mother who lost her child in the disaster. In Chinese characters, the piece reads: “She lived happily on this earth for seven years.” The patchy representation of various strains of Wei’s practice is characteristic of the show.
Those familiar with Ai Weiwei’s work will recognize pottery as being of central concern. The traces of his infamous Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) are displayed in the back room. However, only the residue from the action of dropping the urn are shown. The two photographs documenting the performance are nowhere to be seen, thus leaving viewers new to Wei’s practice in the dark. The show offers clues about his early New York experiments with found materials; insight into his push for freedom of information in China, especially regarding the Sichuan earthquake; a glimpse of the plethora of works aimed at demystifying ancient pottery through destruction or refashioning; and one large scale installation. It is left to visitors to track down the context and discourse that supports these disparate works.
Aileen Burns is an emerging writer and curator based between Toronto and New York. She recently completed her MA in critical and curatorial studies at Columbia University and has held positions at the Whitney (New York, US), Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Toronto) and Mercer Union (Toronto). In addition to contributing to Magenta Magazine Online, her writing appears in Art in America, Canadian Art and C Magazine.