Photo Essays

The Scope of Ai Weiwei’s Imagination

by Hrag Vartanian on July 11, 2014

A detail of Ai Weiwei's "Very Yao" (2009–14), 150 bicycles (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Detail of Ai Weiwei’s “Very Yao” (2009–14), 150 bicycles (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BERLIN — This is the final weekend to see Ai Weiwei: Evidence at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin. The German exhibition is a sweeping survey of mostly recent work that occupies 32,000 square feet of gallery space across 18 rooms. It is the largest solo exhibition the museum has ever staged.

The monkey in Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals" (2011), 12 bronze statues with gold plating (click to enlarge)

The monkey in Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals” (2011), 12 bronze statues with gold plating (click to enlarge)

Along with a wide selection of sculptural works, including the monumental “Stools” (2013) placed in the museum atrium, there are numerous video works by the Beijing-based artist installed throughout, including his unfortunate foray into heavy metal music.

What becomes apparent in this particular show is the artist’s love of spectacle and materials, particularly luxurious ones like jade, marble, bronze, and gold. Handcuffs and cosmetics carved out of jade or a gas mask carved out of marble elevate common objects with sinister purposes into desirable art market commodities.

If the Sichuan Earthquake works, many of which are on display here, are what helped propel Ai to fame in the art world, some of his more recent pieces related to his 2011 detention are just as provocative. “Untitled” (2011) is comprised of dozens of office supplies confiscated by police from the artist’s FAKE studio in Beijing. Organized in a grid, the hardware is arranged on the floor like items in an open-air market. They appear ominous because of their history, but they reveal little of their actual contents. Like the sculptures made of jade or marble, they are rendered into purely aesthetic objects, a function they were never designed to have.

Ai’s Berlin exhibition is a crowd pleaser, with its large-scale installations that allude to Chinese oppression, government surveillance, and other topics that are chronically in the media spotlight.

Some of his newer work, including “Forge” (2008–12), “Rebar in Marble” (2012), “Container” (2013), and “Diaoyu Islands” (2014), suggest the artist is engaging in a conscious dialogue with minimalism, while more exuberant works, like “Circle of Animals” (2011) and “Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint” (2013), are clearly more neo-pop. Walking through the exhibition, it is easy to see how Ai’s art has become more political over time and how he has slowly focused his anger onto the structures and networks of power.

His most compelling work is still “Study of Perspective” (1995–2011), where he is giving the finger to governmental buildings, landmarks, and other symbols or expressions of authority around the world. In these photographs you can see how he is confident as an outsider, poking his finger in the eyes of power. It’s hard not to be impressed that as an artist who is still prevented from traveling outside his homeland, Ai can continue to engage the world with the scale and passion of his imagination.

A view of the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau with Ai Weiwei's "Stools" (2013), wooden stools

A view of the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau with Ai Weiwei’s “Stools” (2013), wooden stools

Detail of Ai Weiwei's "Stools" (2013), wooden stools

Detail of Ai Weiwei’s “Stools” (2013), wooden stools

Ai Weiwei, "Forge" (2008–12), steel rebar

Ai Weiwei, “Forge” (2008–12), steel rebar

Ai Weiwei, "Handcuffs" (2013), jade

Ai Weiwei, “Handcuffs” (2013), jade

Museum visitors in front of some of the images in Ai Weiwei's "Study of Perspective" (1995-2011) series, 40 photographs

Museum visitors in front of some of the images in Ai Weiwei’s “Study of Perspective” (1995-2011) series, 40 photographs

Ai Weiwei, "Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint" (2013), Han Dynasty vases (202 BCE–220 ACE) and automotive paint

Ai Weiwei, “Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint” (2013), Han Dynasty vases (202 BCE–220 ACE) and automotive paint

Ai Weiwei, "Taxi Window Crank" (2012), glass

Ai Weiwei, “Taxi Window Crank” (2012), glass

Ai Weiwei, "Untitled" (2011), office supplies confiscated from FAKE studio during Ai Weiwei's detention

Ai Weiwei, “Untitled” (2011), office supplies confiscated from FAKE studio during Ai Weiwei’s detention

Ai Weiwei, "Untitled" (2011), office supplies confiscated from FAKE studio during Ai Weiwei's detention

Ai Weiwei, “Untitled” (2011), office supplies confiscated from FAKE studio during Ai Weiwei’s detention

Detail of Ai Weiwei, "Mask" (2013), marble

Detail of Ai Weiwei, “Mask” (2013), marble

Ai Weiwei, "Rebar in Marble" (2012), marble

Ai Weiwei, “Rebar in Marble” (2012), marble

The snake in Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals" (2011), 12 bronze statues with gold plating

The snake in Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals” (2011), 12 bronze statues with gold plating

The pig in Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals" (2011), 12 bronze statues with gold plating

The pig in Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals” (2011), 12 bronze statues with gold plating

Ai Weiwei, "One Man Shoe" (1987), wood board, leather, shoes

Ai Weiwei, “One Man Shoe” (1987), wood board, leather, shoes

Ai Weiwei, "Container" (2013)

Ai Weiwei, “Container” (2013)

Ai Weiwei, "Diaoyu Islands" (2014), marble

Ai Weiwei, “Diaoyu Islands” (2014), marble

Ai Weiwei, "Souvenir from Shanghai" (2012), concrete and brick rubble from Ai Weiwei's destroyed Shanghai studio, rosewood bedframe from Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)

Ai Weiwei, “Souvenir from Shanghai” (2012), concrete and brick rubble from Ai Weiwei’s destroyed Shanghai studio, rosewood bedframe from Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)

Ai Weiwei, "Cosmetics" (2013), jade

Ai Weiwei, “Cosmetics” (2013), jade

Detail of Ai Weiwei's "Very Yao" (2009–14),

Detail of Ai Weiwei’s “Very Yao” (2009–14)

Ai Weiwei: Evidence continues at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum (Niederkirchnerstraße 7, Berlin) through Sunday, July 13.

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