Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wood and IOUs

Remember Ai Weiwei, the Chinese multidisciplinary artist, dissident and activist who was detained for 81 days in 2011 and whose design company was then accused of ‘tax evasion’ and given 15 days to raise a total of some 15M yuan – the equivalent of almost €2M – for back taxes, fines and late payments? An outpouring of donations followed, both online and through more concrete channels such as throwing money over the wall to the yard of his studio in Beijing.



Now, Ai has covered the walls of his exhibition at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) with IOUs, promissory notes, he issued for each donation as he considered them loans. The work is called I.O.U. Wallpaper and it is truly impressive consisting of 6000 different IOUs that were printed onto sheets mounted on all the walls of the 1500sqm space. Legend has it that Ai received 30,000 individual donations amounting to 9M yuan to help him settle the matter.

Ai Weiwei chose wood as the theme for the Helsinki show it being the material Chinese and Finnish tradition have in common. In our case, two-thirds of the area is covered in forest that our exports depended on for decades in the form of pulp and paper. In the case of China, forests are being destroyed to make way for massive construction, and urbanisation is wiping out traditional crafts such as woodworking. In Helsinki, Ai is bringing these wrongs to the limelight.


The centrepiece is the huge Tree made by bolting together pieces of dead wood collected from the countryside in Southern China.


Another large installations is the White House that is on display for the first time. It is a frame of a Qing dynasty building made of reclaimed wood painted in white, which is the Chinese colour of mourning,

There is also a chandelier several meters high. The recently reopened HAM is located in a building that used to house inside tennis courts allowing such tall structures to be installed indoors unlike at many other museums.


The exhibition spans from the 1980s to the present day also showing some signature features of the artist: small clever works such as those made of metal hangers as well as sculptures and installations utilising traditional handcrafted items, now pieces of furniture. It is characteristic of Ai to employ skilled craftsmen and artisans to create something unique and unconventional out of traditional Chinese objects, materials or methods thus drawing the viewers’ attention to their vanishing exquisite craftsmanship.

Grapes, a cluster of Qing dynasty stools.

The show includes several beautiful works skilfully crafted in wood but carrying a most upsetting reference to a violation of human rights. I didn’t manage to shoot the most tragic ones. However, below is one shocking installation I want to highlight: an architectural project that is showcased in a model in wood. It takes us to Inner Mongolia where a new city called Ordos was being built. The Ordos 100 project, curated by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, commissioned 100 renowned architects from 27 countries to design a 1000sqm villa for a new community with a master plan by Ai.


The Ordos 100 has not been completed. The actual city with high-rises, apartment building, duplexes and bungalows plus all the facilities for a million people was constructed but remains practically a ghost city. Can you imagine that? If you cannot just look here and here. I found some criticism that Ai’s master plan for the luxury villas was utopian but it seems to me the whole idea of Ordos must have been out of this world.

Since his detention, Ai Weiwei was banned from leaving the country for four years. His passport was only returned to him last July. He was again free to travel, now according to many as the most celebrated and most influential artist of our time. The publicity around the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics he designed together with Herzog and de Meuron and many others was nothing compared with the fame his clashes with the government have brought him. I and hubby were first introduced to his art in January 2011 when we happened to see the impressive installation of 100 million painted porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London, only a few months before his detention.

On the left, Map of China made of wood salvaged from Qing dynasty temples.
Ai now lives in Berlin and was able to attend the opening of his recent exhibition in London as well as that in Helsinki. There is a joint show of him and Andy Warhol ongoing at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia (until April 24). Late last year, he started a three-year professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts

One of Ai’s current projects is to create a memorial for the refugees that have lost and will lose their lives when trying to enter Europe. It will be placed on the island of Lesbos in Greece where he will also start a workshop for a few of his students from both Germany and China. Today, a piece of news from Copenhagen tells that Ai closed down his Ruptures exhibition at the Faurschou Foundation in protest of the new immigration law allowing Danish authorities to confiscate cash and valuables from asylum seekers and delaying family reunions. (Such things are happening in Denmark of all places, could you have imagined that?)

The HAM exhibition will be open until the end of February. The London show at the Royal Academy of Arts, on the other hand, closed in late December but was just released online as a virtual tour with video links. The experience will be available for anyone to explore until November 20. I already navigated through the Ai Weiwei 360 once. I hope you will do the same under this link. Here we have a guru with a message worth listening to.

PS. Divina Proportio, the football-shaped sculpture handcrafted out of rare huanghuali tree (above), was bought by the museum for €100,000.


14 comments:

  1. It looks as if it is an exciting exhibition - he recently had one in London.
    It is interesting that the Chinese colour of mourning is the total oposite of our black, and I recall that they have red for weddings and we use their mourning colour.

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    1. The London show seems to have been the cultural phenomenon of the year. The virtual exhibition with navigable imagery and video links is a fantastic way to put a great show at everyone's reach. I read RA even used crowdfunding to get the Trees to the courtyard. A show very well done!

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  2. Stunning pictures Teresa xxx

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    1. Thank you, Meg. I'm not comfortable photographing indoors yet but a good camera will take you a long way.

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    2. Yeah, you take very nice pictures - really well composed :) Glad you liked the show

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    3. Thank you, Adam. The exhibition was so beautifully arranged it was a pleasure to explore. It is always rewarding to visit an interesting show where you are allowed to take photos enabling you to study the details afterwards. Such an approach will create a much more permanent mark on the visitor.

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    1. Many of them are beautiful in their own right but when you stop and read the story behind them you will be even more impressed.

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  4. I am not one for modern day art Teresa, but this really inspired me. The iou wallpaper really touched me that he made art from the people who helped him, securing them a piece of time. Each piece was thought provoking. Thanks for the tour I really enjoyed this. xx

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    1. You are most welcome, Chel. "When Ai talks the world listens."

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  5. What a fascinating and very sad exhibition . You have really brought it to life with your excellent photos. Barbara

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    1. Thank you, Barbara! I am happy you liked the post.

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  6. Ai Weiwein näyttely teki minuun suuren vaikutuksen. Upeat kuvat kiehtovasta näyttelystä.

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    1. Hän osaa yhdistää niin hienosti kantaaottavuuden ja tradition, että hänen järkyttävätkin teoksensa ovat myös kauniita katsella, mikä lisää hänen taiteensa kiehtovuutta. Hänestä on tosin kasvanut sellainen instituutio, ettei ole enää varmaa, mikä hänestä kerrottu on totta ja mikä tarua, mutta se on mielestäni sivuseikka. Tärkeintä on taiteen yleisinhimillinen sisältö.

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