Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'
For the Chinese-born, Berlin-based artist, art and politics are one and the same. A double exhibition in Dusseldorf shows off his work from the past 10 years, much of it focusing on migration and political repression.
This laundromat-styled installation features some 2,046 pieces of clothing hanging on 40 clothing racks, freshly cleaned and sorted. The pieces were left behind by refugees in 2016 when the so-called Balkan entry route into Europe was sealed off. Ai Weiwei gathered the clothes and gave them their current appearance, simultaneously giving recognition to their owners' perilous experiences.
'Blue and white porcelain plates' (2017)
The artist also focused on human suffering of migrants in this series of porcelain plates. Made in Jingdezhen, the center of Chinese porcelain ware, the plates' decoration at first appears quite traditional. But in fact Ai Weiwei used his own photos and others found online that documented migration as the basis for the designs. The plates depict war, ruin, sea travel and refugee camps.
'Camera with Plinth' (2015) and 'Odyssey' (2016)
The wallpaper pays stylistic tribute to Odysseus, the protagonist in Homer's epic poem who spent years far from home. But the motives actually depict flight and migration. In front stands a marble camera symbolizing state surveillance, a recurring theme of the artist. In 2011, he was arrested in Beijing and detained for 81 days and then kept under government surveillance for more than 20 years.
'Study of Perspective' (1995 to 2011/2014)
Ai Weiwei's Odyssey wall also includes numerous photos from a series. The photographs show cultural or governmental landmarks, with the artist holding up his middle finger before each one. The juxtaposition can be seen as a rejection of and protest against powerful political and social decision-makers.
'Study of Perspective' (1995 to 2011/2014)
These photos from locations in China are the only black-and-white ones in the series. They show Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 repression of students by the Chinese government, on the left, and the Hong Kong harbor on the right. With this year being the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and many in Hong Kong today fearing greater Chinese control, the works are strongly resonant.
This installation consists of six iron boxes that show scenes from Ai Weiwei's 81-day incarceration in 2011. Viewers can look though small openings to see the scenes that feature the artist and guards. It's a realistic portrayal of the human rights abuse he experienced. Above, a guard oversees the toilet entrance.
This work is another indictment of authority. A total of 142 coffin-like transport boxes made of reinforced steel hold straight steel rods that have been cleaned with cement. With this work, Ai Weiwei remembers the 70,000 people who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. More than 5,000 children alone died in schools that collapsed because corrupt local politicians had cut building costs.
The 12 images in this series are made up of Lego pieces, which is why they look pixelated. The animal heads call forth a vision of eternal cycles and predestined destiny. In the background of the zodiac signs, Ai Weiwei shows representative buildings from his series "Study of Perspective," thus merging two series.
'Sunflower Seeds' (2010)
Millions of porcelain sunflower seeds were individually made by 1,600 artisans over two years in the Chinese porcelain capital Jingdezhen. The artwork has a deep political association: Chairman Mao Zedong was often portrayed as the "Sun," and the people were his seeds. In another more present-oriented interpretation, the installation also refers to Chinese mass-produced goods.
Video 'Sunflower Seeds' and 'I.O.U. Wallpaper' (2011-2013)
A video on the manufacturing process of the 100 million sunflower seeds is displayed in front of a billfold wallpaper. After his detention, Ai had to pay an alleged tax debt of €1.7 million. People sent him money, and he designed 13,719 IOU notes symbolizing their contributions. Ai Weiwei's largest European exhibition to date runs through September 1 at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.