„Modernism is the original creation of enlightened human beings, it is the ultimate observation of the meaning of existence and the misery of reality; it keeps a wary eye on society and power; it never makes compromises and never cooperates.“
Ai Weiwei 1997 (quoted from “Ai Weiwei – Der verbotene Blog”, Galiani: Berlin, 2011)
In spite of all the hostile oppression he has been facing in his own country, Ai Weiwei has decided to put on his largest one-man exhibition yet at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. Across 3,000 square metres, 18 rooms and in the spectacular Lichthof he displays works and installations that were either designed specifically for the Martin-Gropius-Bau or have not yet been shown in Germany. The name he has given to his exhibition is “Evidence”, a word that will be, a term well known beyond the English-speaking world from American crime series on TV to mean proof that will stand up in court. From his simple but spacious studio on the rural outskirts of Beijing, Ai Weiwei has created a deeply political exhibition for Berlin.
Ai Weiwei is an artist, architect and politician. Very few of his works do not contain hidden allusions to internal Chinese affairs or to the subject of “China and the West” in general. One must learn to spot the ironical historical and political references in his works, which he sends out into the world like messages in bottles.
Among the works and installations on display at the Martin-Gropius-Bau are a golden copy of the zodiac sculptures (Golden Zodiac, 2011) cast in bronze (c. 1750) by Chinese craftsmen. In 1860, after the end of the Second Opium War, British and French soldiers had conquered Beijing in order to force China to take part in the opium trade. Some of these bronze zodiac figures found their way to Europe, and when they turned up in Paris in 2008 at an auction of Yves Saint-Laurent’s art collection they caused a sensation in the Chinese cultural sphere. Ai Weiwei does not accept the Chinese government’s stance, that these bronze figures are Chinese national treasures, declaring that, rather, they belong to the whole world.
Random arrests and corruption happen to regular Chinese citizens on a daily basis. Ai Weiwei refuses to accept this status quo. He demands freedom of speech, a fair distribution of power, and multiparty democracy.
The infinite variety of forms offered by conceptual art allows him to express his ideas in a country where freedom of expression does not exist.He is also one of the most famous artists in China. In recent years, official Chinese propaganda has attempted to erase him from public consciousness. He is not allowed to exhibit in any museum in China.
Ai Weiwei’s instant response to this tactic was to turn the Internet into his permanent exhibition space: his now banned blogposts are outstanding, as is his current presence on Instagram. Although he is allowed to work in his studio, a dozen surveillance cameras have been placed before his door. His ironic response was to hang red lanterns on them and reproduce them in marble (Marble Surveillance Cameras, 2010). The actions of the regime have been incorporated into his conceptual art. Although he is allowed to travel within China, every step he takes is monitored by undercover agents. His passport has been confiscated to prevent him from travelling abroad.
Until July 13, 2014
Text and Photos: Courtesy of Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin.