Evidence, Ai Weiwei’s largest retrospective to date, opened on April 3rd and that is no coincidence. It was exactly three years ago that day that the most influential artist of China (some argue: of the world) was arrested at the Beijing Capital International Airport and jailed on charges of “economic crimes.” He was released after eighty-one days but has since been forbidden to leave Beijing. For every step outside his own courtyard he has to ask the police for permission, effectively condemning him to house arrest. At least fifteen surveillance cameras are trained at his front door, where he has placed a bicycle mounted with a basket containing flowers as a symbol of his unbroken resistance to police harassment. An exact copy of that bike is now placed in front of the Martin-Gropius-Bau; the artist wasn’t able to attend the grand opening but he’s here in spirit.
Evidence is an accusation in the guise of an exhibition, but this aptly named show is even more about evocation, about keeping Ai in the public eye. The Chinese artist himself is a master of public relations, grabbing headlines weekly, releasing a constant stream of tweets and going viral with videos such as his version of Gangnam Style. In the hands of Andy Warhol and descendants the use and manipulation of the media were a matter of self-promotion or some postmodern take on the democratization of visual art, but for Ai it’s different. Being publicly present is vital to him. As long as he is being noticed by half of the world, the authorities do not dare to lock him up in a labor camp or simply make him disappear. This exhibition is an exhibit in the case Ai is building against the Chinese government but it’s also a sign of life.
Ai Wei Wei, Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint, 2014, Vases from the Han Dynasty (202 B. C. – 220 A. D.) and auto paint; Photo © Mathias Völzke; ©Ai Weiwei / Courtesy of Martin-Gropius-Bau
In line with this, Evidence concentrates on the last five years in which Ai’s work has become increasingly politicized and his clashes with authorities have intensified. Some works embody a more general form of criticism, such as the 2,300-year-old Han dynasty vases coated in the metallic blues and greens normally used on Mercedes, BMWs or other luxury import cars coveted by China’s new elite. The Chinese-Japanese conflict over the geo-politically important but otherwise uninhabited Diaoyu Islands is ridiculed by reducing the islands to marble models. And the disastrous effects of urban sprawl on the natural environment and quality of life is effectively illustrated by the 150-hour-long videos in which Ai documents all the streets within the fourth ring of the Chinese capital.
The massive earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008 offered Ai a clear focal point for his crusade against social and political injustice. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, which claimed at least 70,000 lives, Ai started a citizen’s investigation in order to unveil corrupt officials responsible for the construction of shoddy school buildings and the underreporting of dead students. In the 2013 Venice Biennale he showed metal rods salvaged from disaster sites and hammered straight to form an industrial monument. In Berlin he’s displaying the unprocessed, deformed material. On a computer screen it takes almost an hour and a half for the 4,851 names of students who perished in the quake and whose bodies have been retrieved, to pass.
Perhaps it was his status of international art superstar that kept Ai out of prison for so long, but in 2011 he was arrested and interrogated. After that the political became personal—and so did his art. Ai has become his own subject. A room in the Martin-Gropius-Bau is wallpapered with the promissory notes he made out to all his supporters helping him raise money to pay the 1.9 million bogus fine for tax evasion—30,000 Internet users responded within ten days. But even more impressive is the replica of the cell to which he was confined for eighty-one days. Every piece of furniture and appliance is wrapped in Styrofoam, the lights are on 24/7, and three cameras cover every inch of the cramped space, including toilet and shower. Passing through this sterile box stirs up an emotional cocktail of claustrophobia mixed with paranoia. This feeling is amplified when on exiting you find the screens showing the visitors behind you going through the same motions of getting to grip with this kind of invasion of privacy.
The problem with this type of art is that it leaves hardly any room for criticism. Saying something negative about Ai’s work—or the work of any dissident artist, for that matter—is tantamount to booing a champion of human rights and free speech. When the subject is this important and severe, ethics usually takes precedent over aesthetics. The sympathy factor blurs almost all judgment. When trying to ignore this, however, and judging Evidence purely on its artistic merits, it has to be said that this show is not all good. A couple of rooms would have been better omitted from the show; they contain handcuffs in jade, glass coat hangers, and the like—the artist milking the story of his incarceration without saying anything interesting. The short film Dumbass is much to be preferred. Here Ai appropriates the visual language of 1980s rock videos in a short narrative mixing humor with politics and cabaret.
Ai Wei Wei, Stools, 2014, 6,000 wooden stools from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), dimensions variable; © Ai Weiwei / Courtesy of Martin-Gropius-Bau
The presence of some older works provides context and helps one fully appreciate Ai’s art. Ai’s One Man Shoe (1987), two pieces of footwear sewn together heel to heel, clearly shows his indebtedness to Marcel Duchamp. A Study in Perspective (1995-2003), a series of photographs featuring landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the White House with the artist’s middle finger in the foreground, breathes a punk spirit; it’s crude but effective. Ai is at his best, however, when abstracting issues of history and identity and molding them into more poetic pieces. Stools (2014), the largest work in Evidence, is a good example. It’s an installation containing 6,000 stools, the most elementary piece of furniture to be found in every Chinese household, and as such, a very humble representation of the masses. In the central hall of the Martin-Gropius-Bau they form a virtual sea, a wooden carpet with an organic pattern of faded colors and slightly different heights. It’s Ai’s benign representation of his country and countrymen, with the patina of nuance and an unmistakable sense of belonging.
(Image on top: Portrait of Ai Wei Wei , 2012; © Gao Yuan / Courtesy of Martin-Gropius-Bau)