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Ai Weiwei: art and politics

May 19, 2011

Anne Blood explores how two new exhibitions of Ai Weiwei’s work in London illustrate the complex intersection between politics and culture.

With the recent boom in Chinese contemporary art it is easy to forget that while the international art market remains one of the largest unregulated and volatile financial markets, the seamless exchange of works of art across the globe does not create a utopian realm for freedom of artistic expression and critique. The detention by local authorities of the Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei at Beijing airport on April 3rd provides the most recent and sobering evidence of how censorship and international politics can assert their ‘regulating’ force on the international art world. With the opening of two exhibitions of Ai’s work in London this week, at Somerset House and Lisson Gallery, it is the perfect time to reflect on the complex relationship between art and politics.

Currently on display in the courtyard at Somerset House, Ai’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (pictured above) is comprised of 12 monumental bronze animal heads, re-creations of the traditional Chinese zodiac sculptures that once adorned the fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan, an eighteenth-century imperial retreat outside Beijing. These over-sized heads, though based on the original designs by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione that were commissioned by the Manchu Emperor Quianlong, are overwhelmingly kitsch – sitting somewhere between memorial and mockery. Ai first became intrigued by the zodiac heads when he heard about the Chinese government’s efforts to try and relocate the 12 statues, which were stolen in 1860 when the Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops (today only seven heads have been located). While Ai’s decapitated heads draw attention to this practice of looting and repatriation, what makes them intriguing is their further comment on copying and ‘fakes’ as well as, oddly, international cultural exchange and political relations, both nineteenth-century and current. This emerges both in the conception of the original heads made by European artists for an Asian client and in the current installation of Ai’s ‘Chinese’ works within the grandiose setting of Sir William Chamber’s English courtyard at Somerset House.

On the other side of London at Lisson Gallery, 13 major works made by Ai over the past six years are spread across both of the Lisson sites on Bell Street. Here themes such as ancient Chinese culture, memory and surveillance are investigated through an array of objects: expertly crafted wooden furniture; coldly rendered marble statutes of everyday objects – including a replica of one of the many CCTV cameras that have been mounted outside the artist’s studio for years; lengthy, deadpan, yet mesmerisingly poetic documentation of the Chang’an Boulevard in an 10-hour+ film; the colourfully (and blasphemously) painted Han dynasty clay vases (pictured below).

China is notorious for its blatant disregard towards conserving its traditional architecture and cityscapes. In cities like Beijing, the traditional maze of narrow streets and alleyways, or hutongs, some of which date back 700 years, are demolished, erased, and progress is measured visually in the clean streets and sleek lines of new skyscrapers. While this evidence of progress via urbanisation is relived in Ai’s two film works on display, Second Ring (2005) and Chang’an Boulevard (2004), China’s complicated relationship with its own history – culturally, politically and visually – is expressed with equal strength in the assortment of garishly coloured painted Han dynasty vases. Looking at these vases, one wonders whether, through his own ‘destruction’ of ancient artefacts, Ai is simply ‘tarting up’ the past to make it more palatable for our present. Much like Dorothy wearing her green-tinted spectacles as she walks into the Emerald City, we are invited to see Chinese history through a colourful prism that mirrors the spectacle of the shining bright lights of progress and advertising. Here the Han vases aren’t on display in a gallery setting ‘lest we forget’ history, but instead to ask us critically to question what is forgotten when censorship edits the pain or the black and white out of history and leaves us with a technicolor memory.

On the weekend of the artist’s detention in Beijing, a group of international journalists gathered (with the help of sponsorship from BMW) for the re-opening of the National Museum of China and its inaugural international exhibition The Art of the Enlightenment. This monolithic show, organised by three German museums (the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden) will be on display to 31st March 2012. The exhibition is tied into the Sino-German cultural exchange programme, bilaterally agreed in 2005, that aims to foster mutual understanding between China and Germany and to broaden cultural ties. More specifically, this exchange is a component of the Sino-German ‘Communiqué on the Comprehensive Advancement of the Strategic Partnership’, signed by Wen Jiabao and Angela Merkel in Beijing in July 2010.

As a whole, The Art of the Enlightenment provides a sweeping and sanitised view of the Enlightenment, arguing that the philosophical ideas of Kant, Hume, Locke, et al have had an enduring influence on the visual arts from the 1700s to the present day. While this line of argument may hold, in the exhibition it is stretched so far that ‘Enlightenment’ becomes an all-encompassing ideal, far removed from the historical events, such as two revolutionary wars in America and France, that this Western philosophy helped to inspire in the eighteenth century. As a cultural event largely born out of an international trade agreement, one is left wondering whether this show uses art as a means to remember history and promote greater cultural understanding, or rather as the prettily iced flowers on a bitter diplomatic cake.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is in the courtyard of Somerset House until 26 June 2011.

Ai Weiwei is at Lisson Gallery until 16 July 2011.

The Art of the Enlightenment is at the National Museum of China until 31 March 2012.


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