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BEIJING — Between two Beijing galleries, Ai Weiwei has divided a 400-year-old temple’s 1,500 worn, wooden pieces. The towering installations meditate on tradition and modernity. According to Galleria Continua, which is jointly presenting the exhibition with Tang Contemporary Art, the solo show is the first time the Chinese artist has created and staged “a solo exhibition in his home country, following the entire development of the project from conception to realization in situ.”
It’s almost impossible to visit an Ai Weiwei exhibition without considering the ongoing politics of the artist’s life as a subtext, especially as these current Beijing installations required government approval and an opening to be rescheduled to June 6 to avoid coinciding with the June 4 Tiananmen Square protests anniversary. However, the Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art exhibition, set in neighboring spaces in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, is decidedly apolitical. It’s a contrast to Ai’s other recent work, like @Large on Alcatraz in San Francisco focused on detention and incarceration, or even the current crowdsourcing of Legos for upcoming pieces on the freedom of speech. Yet unlike his physical absence at most of his recent exhibitions — due to just getting a new Chinese passport this July after it was taken away by authorities in 2011 — the artist was present from start to finish in the galleries as the temple was reconstructed.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the galleries were both curiously empty. Whether this is due to the show being up since June, local interest that doesn’t mirror the enthusiasm for his art in the West, or just that I picked a quiet hour, is unclear. Live video screens in each gallery show the other space in real-time, to connect the audiences, although it felt more like capturing drifting ghosts who had vanished by the time I followed their footsteps.
The exhibition, curated by Cui Cancan, reveals more of its intricacies through exploring, as unexpected details like Nike sneakers dangling on one of the wooden rafters are discovered, and an aerial vantage point offers a new perspective on the temple and the surrounding ready-mades like a huge, tacky chandelier that reflects on a temporary tile wall, or a weathered old dragon smiling alongside traditional lamps. In Tang Contemporary, a separate room is strewn with thousands of antique spouts from broken teapots, each similar while unique like Ai’s ceramic sunflower seeds, illuminated in fluorescent along with a temple pillar. The contrast between the old and new might not be subtle, although that’s never been his angle, but it is visually striking.
Neither gallery has much label text aside from a Goethe quotation, which may also not help to draw audiences in, especially in a city where the white-walled gallery with rambling essays available at the front desk is still a developing entity. So while the imagery is engaging, there’s not a lot else to make a visitor linger, with even the video of the impressive installation process easy to overlook on the second floor of Galleria Continua.
The Wang Jiaci (Wang Family Ancestral Hall) had a long journey to Beijing, dating to the late Ming dynasty and serving as a sacred space for generations. With the fall of imperialism, the temple’s purpose was corroded, and the structure deteriorated and was finally auctioned off in 2000 to a businessman. Eventually Ai purchased it in its entirety, and missing or decayed components were replaced with brightly painted parts. Flowers in green, pink, and white stand out against the old wood, and one of its supports is a crystal with some writing in Chinese visible through the translucent surface. As an imperfect reconstruction, it’s a meditative reflection of how lost history can’t entirely be resurrected.
Ai Weiwei continues at Galleria Continua (# 8503, Dashanzi 798 Art Factory, 2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang Dst, Beijing, China) and Tang Contemporary Art (Gate No. 2, 798 factory, Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang Dst, Beijing, China) through December 6.