Sculpture by Ai Weiwei in front of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum and overlooking the Bosphorus (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
ISTANBUL — In an era where superstar Chinese artist Ai Weiwei feels ubiquitous, this past summer I experienced the full extent of that reality over the course of two months. After attending a New York preview for his new film about migrants, Human Flow (2017), I traveled to Israel to visit a major exhibition of his work at the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem, then a show of his porcelain works at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul. Shortly after that, I returned to New York City, right around the time his major public art project, Fences, opened. And these weren’t the only exhibitions by Ai being mounted around the world.
Of all the Ai Weiwei events and works I encountered, his Istanbul exhibition was the most intelligent, disturbing, and luxurious. I don’t often connect those three words but they encapsulate the general mood of the exhibition, which includes a massive display of porcelain (an object of luxury) and images of migrants and refugees (including as wallpaper) at a private museum owned by a private university, sustained by a billionaire family that built their fortunes on neoliberal polices in the last few decades. The contradictions are everywhere, but the objects are strangely alluring, from his well-known sunflower seeds, to rows of plates (including one depicting Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish boy who died in the Aegean) and vases stacked atop one another to resemble Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column series.
Exploring the rooms of work, you have to wonder how he produces so much; the scale of his imagination feels endless.
Mixing old and new images, the Ai Weiwei On Porcelain show often felt like a greatest hits performance, but all in one medium.
Detail of one of the many endless column-like structures by Ai Weiwei depicting migrants and refugees
A view of one of the more impressive rooms
An “endless column”
Some of the politically charged images on these plates were one of the more controversial aspects of the exhibition
A plate with an image of Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who died trying to escape to Europe from the war raging back home
Images of violence, confrontation, and migration were everywhere
Another contemporary scene done in a more traditional Chinese manner, and using traditional forms and characters.
Life and porcelain mix
The details are quite impressive
“Tiger, Tiger, Tiger” is a collection of 3,000 Ming-era broken porcelain plates that depict tiger images.
“Porcelain Vases with Bamboo Poles” (2005–08)
Various sculptural forms against one of his now well-known wallpaper patterns
“Colored Vases” (2015)
“He Xie” (2012)
Some colorful examples of Ai’s rebar sculptures
A general view of a lower gallery with the oil-puddle-like works in the foreground
Various fruit sculptures
A hall of images from Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective series
A room dedicated to his #FlowersforFreedom series
A detail of #FlowersforFreedom
“Hanging Man in Porcelain (Gold)” (2009)
Detail of the outdoor installation
A Qing object from the collection of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul that points to the presence of Chinese porcelain during the Ottoman Empire, which Turkey claims as part of its heritage.
Ai Weiwei On Porcelain continues at the Sabancı University Sakıp Sabancı Museum (Sabancı Cad. No:42 Emirgan 34467 İstanbul) in Istanbul until March 11, 2018.