Today's blog topic is Ai Weiwei at Frederik Meijer Gardens: Natural State exhibit in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957) is a politically active conceptual artist. He confronts cultural traditions, surveillance and censorship in this exhibit. I was excited to experience his work up close and Natural State at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park did not disappoint.
Ai Weiwei's bamboo and silk kites depicting Chinese gods and mythical creatures embrace traditional Chinese media and themes. These INCREDIBLE pieces appear simultaneously ancient and futuristic, airy and massive.
Taifeng, 2015, Bamboo and silk
Shuyu, 2015, Bamboo and silk
Mingshe, 2015, Bamboo and silk
Dijiang, 2015, Bamboo and silk
Shusi, 2015, Bamboo and silk
Ai Weiwei ingeniously uses these time-honored media to question their own importance. The act of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn confronts the value attached to objects, like ancient urns, while literally breaking the past.
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 2016, LEGO bricks
Covering Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) vases with auto paint in Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint also challenges reverence for art and cultural tradition. It is reminiscent of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q. Both artists alter 'untouchable' cultural icons.
Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint, 2015, Han Dynasty Vases (202 BC - 220 AD) and auto paint
The green glaze and patterns of Wave Plate are rooted in traditional porcelain works and showcase Ai Weiwei's phenomenal skills.
Wave Plate, 2012, porcelain
Other porcelain works in the exhibit question established artistic aesthetics and norms.
Ai Weiwei says he is "testing the possibilities porcelain offers ... I hope that everyone can come to a new understanding of these works that would not traditionally be made in porcelain."1
The twelve blue and white glazed porcelain tubes resembling PVC pipe in Porcelain Cube are spectacular. Creating an architectural form out of porcelain is a feat.
Porcelain Cube,2009, Porcelain
The twisted, multi-colored Porcelian Rebar represents rubble from the massive 2008 Sichuan province earthquake. Ai Weiwei again makes strength out of fragility. 2
Porcelian Rebar,2015, Porcelain
Irregularly shaped porcelain is used this time to examine climate change in Oil Spills. The viewer sees their reflection in the shiny, black porcelain pools on the ground, prompting contemplation of their impact on the environment.
Oil Spills,2006, porcelain
The small, white porcelain flowers of Blossom are individually frail but emit fortitude as a group. Blossom is at the same time political because it references the 1956-1957 'Hundred Flowers Campaign' that briefly allowed Chinese citizens more freedom of speech. 3 This subject choice is a hope for future freedom of expression.
Blossom, 2015, Porcelain
Blossom ,2015, Porcelain - detail
He Xie is also political. Ai Weiwei wanted to hold a crab dinner to mark the occasion of the government destroying his studio in 2011 but was detained. The dinner was held in his absense by friends and followers on social media. 4 Like the flowers of Blossom and Ai Weiwei's advocates the crabs are delicate alone and formidable together.
He Xie , 2011, Porcelain
He Xie , 2011, Porcelain - detail
Free Speech Puzzle consists of Qing style decorated porcelain pieces, each shaped like a Chinese province reading 'free speech.' When forming China as a whole they promote solidarity for an end to censorship.
Free Speech Puzzle, 2015, Hand-painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style
Three other works in Natural State overtly criticize censorship and surveillance but are made of modern media.
Ai Weiwei says censorship "...relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness."5
The Animal that Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca wallpaper expresses this isolation. Golden Twitter bird logos are chained and surrounded by cameras representing internet censorship and constant surveillance.
The Animal that Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca, 2015, Wallpaper
Ai Weiwei intimately addresses surveillance and censorship in Illumination and Brain Inflation. Illumination was taken during Ai Weiwei's 2008 arrest and Brain Inflation documents the brain hemorrhage Ai Weiwei suffered from beatings during his interrogation and arrest.
Illumination , 2009, color print on dibond
Brain Inflation, 2009, color print on dibond
Illumination and Brain Inflation are powerful but for me the porcelain works stole the show. Examples of Ai Weiwei's clever ability to use classical materials to address contemporary issues and politics are abundant. You can view more of my exhibition photos here. The pieces chosen for Natural State breathe life into Ai Weiwei's philosophy that "Everything is art. Everything is politics."6
1) Exhibition wall text, Conservatory at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Ai Weiwei at Frederik Meijer Gardens: Natural State, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
2) Exhibition label, Porcelian Rebar, Conservatory at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Ai Weiwei at Frederik Meijer Gardens: Natural State, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
3) Exhibition label, Blossom at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Ai Weiwei at Frederik Meijer Gardens: Natural State, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
4) Exhibition label, He Xie at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Ai Weiwei at Frederik Meijer Gardens: Natural State, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
5) Ai Weiwei, How Censorship Works, May 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/06/opinion/sunday/ai-weiwei-how-censorship-works.html?_r=0 accessed June 12, 2017
6) Exhibition wall text, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Ai Weiwei at Frederik Meijer Gardens: Natural State, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan.