ai weiwei

according to what?
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
25 July - 8 November 2009

Spectacle and stimulation are never far from the surface in a city like Tokyo. A literal megalopolis that sprawls out endlessly, its sheer scale, magnitude, bright lights and omnipresent city grime render the individual almost lost and forgotten—enveloped by the city and its functions. This is the view from the observation deck that shares the same building as the Mori Art Museum. Unlike our public museum spaces, which are often housed in self-contained buildings, the Mori Art Museum is located on the fiftieth and fifty-first floors of the Mori tower, which is part of the larger Roppongi Hills complex. As you enter the museum you are taken up an escalator with a gleaming chandelier hanging above you illuminating the foyer—pure spectacle in itself. In this context, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition ‘According to What?’, with its combination of large-scale multi-media works and smaller sculptural objects, inhabited the voluminous spaces of the Mori Art Museum with an overall sense of coherence and purpose.

It is easy to view Ai as the agent provocateur of mainland Chinese art because of his other life as a dedicated political activist; one might situate his oeuvre on a plane that acts purely as a political affront to, or subversive statement against, the policies of the Chinese government. Certainly some of his work has a political edge, as it comments on and critiques these social policies, however to position it as inherently political may be overly simplistic. Ai’s works are as much about the process of exploring history and form, as well as the self within a rapidly shifting social context.

The exhibition was divided into three main sections: ‘Fundamental Forms and Volumes’, ‘Structure and Craftsmanship’ and ‘Reforming and Inheriting Tradition’. In the first space, the viewer was exposed to several works which examine the use of traditional everyday materials used to create modernist geometric forms. In works such as Ton of Tea (2006), oolong tea is compacted to form a perfectly shaped cubic metre block. It stood quietly in the middle of the space—static and aesthetically resolved, an exploration of space and form. The use of organic materials such as Huali wood, in Cubic Metre Tables (2006), and tea provides the works with a textural quality that reminds the viewer of the process-driven nature of Ai’s work.

At the rear of the first gallery space, Teahouse (2009) filled an entire sectioned off void. Solid blocks of compacted tea fashioned into brick-like shapes were stacked on top of each other to form a small house that sat on a bed of loose tea leaves. The loose tea appeared to spew out of the house, completely colonising the space, reaching out to the viewer as a gesture of connection between the interior space and the external unknown. Consequently, the volume of the house seemed to expand metaphorically, past its rigid shape, and to be emptied out of its intended use value, signifying the relationship of this ingredient to the customs of social interaction and everyday life.

The notions of everyday life and societal transformations are always embedded into Ai’s work. In a separate space the work Provisional Landscapes (2002-2008) was created using a large series of photographs that wrapped around all four walls, enveloping the viewer’s field of vision through the scale of imagery. Individual shots displayed a myriad of urban landscapes in China, some documenting the concrete rubble after a demolition, some the gigantic equipment used to create new apartment buildings, some the finished result—a series of gleaming towers amidst a sea of rubble. A visual timeline of China’s rapid urbanisation at all costs, this work displayed the ‘before’ and ‘after’ in all its glory. There were other works in the exhibition that critiqued China’s commercialisation, such as Forever Bicycles (2003) and Coca Cola Vase (1997), in which a fourteen hundred year old vase from the Tang dynasty has been emblazoned with the Coca Cola logo. The imagery in Provisional Landscapes is tinged with a sense of the unknowing and sadness, foregrounding the multiple layers of society touched by drastic urban change—it is an arresting and profound work.

There were works that struggled to articulate the complex layers that are embedded into the experiences of life in China, such as Snake Ceiling (2008), a serpent-like form that was suspended high above, on the ceiling. Made out of brightly coloured backpacks that were connected together, the bags acted as the building blocks of the serpent’s languid body—its form referencing the use of serpent imagery as a symbolic representation of evil and taker of life in Chinese mythology. This collection of backpacks was also a visual reference to the number of people who perished in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, in this case appearing literally to be swallowed up by the snake. However the work lacked the restraint and subtlety needed to engage with such an issue, and sat awkwardly in the space in which it was hung. Disrupting the conceptual flow of the exhibition, it appeared almost as an artistic contrivance—the act of remembrance and commemoration faded into the background, as the statement and the visual were embraced.

Whilst some of the large-scale sculptural works and the video work Chang An Boulevard (2008) had a discursive quality that sat uncomfortably beside the more conceptually coherent works, as an exploration into Ai’s oeuvre, this exhibition provided the viewer with insights into the social and cultural contexts from which his works are created. Ai’s works are always bound to an experience, to a time and a place in history and the reconfiguring of established art histories. In a city like Tokyo where efficiency and hyper-modernity are intertwined with the historical, this exhibition felt entirely at home.