Late last year on a trip to China with a media group, I asked to be let go for a day so I could go and check out the contemporary art scene in Beijing, which could only lead me to the 798 Art District, a 30-minute cab ride from the center of the city, and then an hour’s ride back given rush hour traffic in the evening.
The amount of time, the cost of the cab, the exhaustion of trying to walk across a whole district that used to be the site of state-owned factories, now transformed into an art community with galleries, art shops, cafes and restaurants, was no joke. But a sense of the art and creativity going on in Beijing was well worth it, giving me a broader and deeper sense of what China is about at this point in time, over and above what international media portrays.
And then I happened upon an exhibit that stretched across two galleries, Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art, and entering through a back door, was overwhelmed by it even before I could attach a name to it.
The name, I would later find, is Ai Weiwei’s.
Critiquing the past
The exhibit simply had his name on it, like it would be enough to explain what unfolds across the two galleries, and why he’s doing this work at all.
And without a sense that this was Ai Weiwei’s first exhibit in China, the vastness of this exhibit and the amount of control and discipline there was in mounting it could only be impressive. What might have made it even more extraordinary was the sense that this was not so much about the artist whose name the exhibit holds. It was your spectatorship that would make this exhibit happen.
Because there would have been something missed by watching this exhibit from afar—you would also be hard put to distance yourself from the structures and installations here. Say, a crystal chandelier all lit up, standing on a platform instead of hanging from the ceiling. It fills one corner of the gallery, and the effect is that you’re drawn in by that which is so rarely within reach.
This installation exists relative to the major installation here: pieces of a Ming dynasty shitang from Jiangxi province—a family ancestral hall for worship where major decisions that affect the community are made. Ai Weiwei had bought the structure and hired a team that would tear it down beam by beam, column by column. This deconstruction-reconstruction was possible because these columns and beams were independent of the walls, a 1000-year-old Chinese architectural tradition.
Torn down, the structure produced 1,300 pieces, which were marked and transported to Beijing for this exhibit. The goal was to make sure that it could be reconstructed across the two galleries; walls had to be torn down at the Tang Contemporary space so that the structure could be brought in.
To say this main installation was awesome would be an understatement. And it was mostly about the of its vision: this reconstruction was essentially a critique of what the ancestral hall stood for in the past and what it has become in the present.
This is not just about found objects that are reconfigured into “installation art.” Instead it’s a heritage structure turned art installation, one that is both a critique of the ideologies that Chinese heritage represents, and a tribute to that past long gone.
There is a tension in the mere existence of this ancestral hall and all that it stands for, vis a vis the fact that it is cut up across two galleries, each one holding various other representations of heritage and ritual and the current preoccupation with attaching notions of value to these objects as art.
There was “Chicken Cup,” a glass case that holds multiple replicas of the same bowl, referencing the wine cup that was bought by a Chinese art collector for millions of dollars at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014. All of Ai Weiwei’s bowls carried Beijing fake markings.
There were the antique tea spouts from the Song to Qing Dynasties—some installed in a glass case, and 10,000 of the same thing seemingly randomly spilled across one corner of the space. Where the former made the spouts valuable, the latter renders it non-collectible, non-art.
Across the beams and columns of the reconstructed and reinstalled temple in the two galleries are carved wooden building elements, colored in stark white and bright colors, creating a stark contrast between the aged imperfect wood, and the shiny perfection of contemporary pop art. On a second floor space is documentation of the destruction and construction process, like a mapping out of what was done and how, in order to get to this point of an exhibit.
In one gallery space, an antique, torn and decrepit dragon lantern sits on an old desk, while on the floor old Chinese lanterns are all lined up, like tired soldiers guarding an old warrior. The intertext of Chinese ritual and celebration, even the zodiac, is what’s being critiqued here, a reminder that the ancient past, what might be considered as heritage, is just as complicit in the task of current un-freedom, in the arts and contemporary ideology, both.
The non-political future?
Surprisingly what has been said about this exhibit is its apolitical nature. But there is nothing apolitical about having spectators walk through two different spaces that carry representations of Chinese heritage long forgotten, objects from which are now being commodified by an art market and system with renewed interest in Asia. There is also nothing apolitical about an exhibit that cuts up a great ancestral hall, rendering it impossible to see it completely, and necessarily intervening in the emotional reaction that heritage and collective memory allow us.
And certainly it must be a statement on our notions of community and freedom—and the state of our politics—when these two gallery spaces can only be captured via unseen CCTV cameras, ones that you would not even know exist, until you realize that the TV screen you are watching from one gallery is actually a live feed of the other gallery. So at any given moment you are being watched from one side of the wall, at any given moment you are “present” in both exhibits.
All this might be part of the risky business that Ai Weiwei engages in: where the denial of politics, where the insistence that art just happens, is already precisely a kind of politics that critiques the status quo, and raises questions about what we know of our past and what we are doing in the present.
One realizes that no matter Western media and the global art scene’s tendency to vilify China in order to celebrate Ai Weiwei, that in fact the artist himself is putting into question not just the injustice in his own country, but the injustice of the global art enterprise as a whole.
He just might be playing all of them. All of us. One hopes he does not stop.
Additional sources: ArtRadarJournal.com, NewsArtNet.com, Independent.co.uk, TimeOutBeijing.com, GalleriaContinua.com.