We have seen Ai’s work in several places, but never a large collection as this. It helped understand much more of the layers in his work, trying to make sense as well as show the absurdity of the rapid societal changes China has seen in the past few decades, and this being an authoritarian country thus very much blurring the lines between political activism and art.
The police demolishes your studio, they previously invited you to build to help create an art scene in Shanghai? Turn the bricks and other remnants into a monumental installation and call it ’Souvenir from Shanghai’. Or exhibit the hard drives and usb sticks that were confiscated during a search of your home, with the ‚evidence’ stickers attached to them.
Want to discuss the shoulder shrugs caused by the destruction of ancient city neighborhoods in favor of new concrete tower blocks? Destroy and spray paint even more ancient vases to cause an uproar and point out the hypocrisy.
Is the government refusing to discuss how corruption that led to bad quality buildings costs thousands of deaths amongst school children during an earthquake? Collect the names yourself, and use 200 tons (!) of concrete reinforcement bars pulled from the rubble as material for your installations, or turn them into marble as a memorial.
What also very much stood out for me is that the installations we see are merely the endpoint of a long process where the final work’s contours only emerge at the end. They are illogical as a sudden appearance but a logical outcome of the process involved. That process contains investigative journalism, diving into science and history just as much as reflecting on (western) art.
These glimpses of an artist’s process or his studio, the endless trying, the slow slog towards an object, is enormously fascinating to me. We can’t do enough to break the fiction that all the expressions and objects we laud as art are like Athena born ready made from the mind of the artist, but the result of time consuming exploration and hard work.
Thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition both as a window on how this particular artist works, as well as on China, of which we assume much but really know little.