"Modernism is the original creation of enlightened human beings, it is the ultimate observation of the meaning of existence and the misery of reality; it keeps a wary eye on society and power; it never makes compromises and never cooperates." Ai Weiwei 1997 (quoted from “Ai Weiwei - Der verbotene Blog”, Galiani: Berlin, 2011)
Despite all the incredible hostility shown him in his own country Ai Weiwei decided to put on his largest one-man exhibition yet in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. On 3,000 square metres in 18 rooms and the spectacular Lichthof he will be displaying works and installations which were either designed for the Martin-Gropius-Bau or have not yet been shown in Germany.
The name he has given to his exhibition is “Evidence”, a term well known beyond the English-speaking world from American TV crime series in the meaning of proof that will stand up in court. It is a political exhibition that Ai Weiwei has designed for Berlin in his simple and spacious studio in the rural outskirts of Beijing.
Ai Weiwei is an artist, architect and politician. Hardly any of his works are without hidden allusions to internal Chinese affairs or to the large subject of “China and the West”. One must learn to spot the ironical historical and political references in his works, which he sends out into the world like messages in bottles.
Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous artists in the world, and yet the Chinese authorities detained him illegally for 81 days (81, 2014) in a cell in a secret prison in which the light was switched on 24 hours a day and which he was not allowed to leave, being kept under the constant scrutiny of two guards. He later reproduced out of precious jade the handcuffs with which he had been shackled to a chair during his imprisonment (Jade Handcuffs, 2013).
Arbitrary arrests and corruption are the daily lot of ordinary Chinese citizens. Ai Weiwei refuses to accept this. He demands freedom of speech, division of powers, and multi-party democracy. And he uses the infinite variety of forms offered by conceptual art to express this in a country in which freedom of opinion does not exist.
He is also one of the most famous artists in China. In recent years official Chinese propaganda has attempted to remove him from the public consciousness. He is not allowed to exhibit in any museum in China. Ai Weiwei’s instant response to this tactic was to turn the Internet into his permanent exhibition: his now forbidden blogs are outstanding, as is his current appearance on Instagram.
Although he is allowed to work in his studio, a dozen surveillance cameras have been placed before his door. His ironic response was to hang red lanterns on them and reproduce them in marble (Marble Surveillance Cameras, 2010). The actions of the regime have become a part of his conceptual art. Although he is allowed to travel within China, every step he takes is monitored by undercover agents. His passport has been withdrawn to prevent him travelling abroad.
Among the works and installations which will be on display in the Martin-Gropius-Bau will be a golden copy of the zodiac sculptures (Golden Zodiac, 2011) cast in bronze (c. 1750) by Chinese craftsmen according to designs by the Europeans Castiglione and Benoist. They formed part of a kind of sun and water clock and were located in a garden commissioned by the Emperor and containing buildings in the European style. In 1860, after the end of the Second Opium War, the whole garden was plundered and torched by the rapacious British and French soldiery that had conquered Beijing in order to force the opium trade on China. Some of the bronze zodiac figures found their way to Europe, and when they turned up in Paris in 2008 at an auction of the art collection of Yves Saint-Laurent they caused a sensation in the world of Chinese culture. Ai Weiwei does not accept the Chinese government’s argument that these bronze figures are national treasures of China, asserting instead that they belong to the whole world.
When Ai Weiwei recreates for the exhibition in the Gropiusbau the disputed Pacific Diaoyu Islands (Diaoyu Islands, 2013) in marble taken from a quarry near Peking – the same marble that the emperors of China once used for the Forbidden City and the country’s present rulers for the Mao Mausoleum, his intention is to give artistic form to a conflict that threatens today’s globalized world.
In the large Lichthof of the Gropiusbau the artist has assembled 6,000 simple wooden stools (Stools, 2014) of the type used in the Chinese countryside for hundreds of years, ever since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The result is an aesthetically pleasing, pixel-like work. These stools, according to Ai Weiwei, are an expression of the centuries-old aesthetic of rural China.
Image: Ai Weiwei. 2012 © Gao Yuan