“He’s just an artist. What does he know?” a critic said of Ai Weiwei. “He’s all politics,’ said the Tokyo critics. Both could be right but both are also wrong. Today he was in Rotterdam’s Kunsthal for the opening of Ai Weiwei, in Search of Humanity. He praised the new retrospective as one of the best ever mounted of his work. The exhibition is spectacular, not only in its enormity, but also in the thoughtful way it has been curated. He admitted that once he has sent a work into the world his relationship with it is over. Or the pieces sit in a crate in his studio, now in Portugal, so the only times he will see them again is in a show such as this one at Kunsthal.
Ai Weiwei was his usual self on the podium – slightly self-deprecating, a little like one’s favourite Chinese uncle, but also forceful in his view of the world and humanity as a whole. At the beginning of the exhibition there are early works, unashamedly and heavily influenced by Dada and especially Marcel Duchamp – everyday objects such as wooden stools lean onto each other assuming dynamic structures. A large sculpture made of the standard Chinese manufactured bicycle frames seemed at first to be a jolly rondo dance of bikes until one realises that the bikes themselves have neither saddle nor a handlebar – a bike will get you nowhere if you cannot steer it. The irony is obvious and refers to the state control in China. Some of the most striking works feature crushed bicycles, put through a mincer, smashed to smithereens, presumably by tanks during the Tienanmen Square uprising.
And Ai Weiwei was the unfortunate recipient of state control more than once, at times brutally beaten and incarcerated. There are videos of his altercations with Chinese police. A series of huge black metal boxes with peep holes recreate, in miniature, the nightmarish conditions in which he was held for close to three months. Physically pressured in his cell by two guards at all times he had to eat with them standing threateningly close; not only that. The two guards also stood within touching distance from him when he sat on the toilet. These scenarios are like something out of Orwell’s 1984, only worse. There is also a life size reconstruction of the cell into which one can venture.
In one vast space a giant python floats under the ceiling, further on the remnants of palaces in the form of truncated feet of what must once have been small statues. Small wooden boxes have been turned into mini coffins for bricks rescued from ancient sites. In a space to themselves are the partially reimagined spectacular golden Zodiac animal heads that once graced the fountain of the Imperial Summer Palace. The animal heads are also shown as huge portraits made of Lego. Lego, for fear of Ai Weiwei’s plan to use them for his political works, refused to deliver pieces to him as the company wanted permission to open a Lego Land in China. Ever the resourceful spirit, Weiwei established Lego collection points and thousands were only too willing to contribute to his endeavour.
Ai Weiwei engages both with past and present of China, openly protesting against the destruction of the country’s culture. He professes not to seek to make art for the sake of beauty, although everything he has created is in fact beautiful and executed to perfection. But the message is always beyond the objects’ surface appearance. His is the visual language of activism, of protest against injustice, the pernicious state control over information, denial of free speech to the Chinese population in particular and human rights abuses world wide. In his book 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrow, he movingly recounts, that as a result of the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, his father was persecuted and banished, together with his young family, to ‘Little Siberia’ in North Eastern China, to live in an underground earth dug-out in inhumane conditions. This deprivation left an indelible mark on Ai Wei Wei as he grew up. Today his long-suffering father is recognised as the national poet.
“I was a refugee in my own country”, says Ai Weiwei. In recent years he has visited forty refugee camps. The pile of life jackets collected up on a beach reflects the plight of millions who flee their country in wartime.
There is much, much more to see and experience in this vast exhibition than one could possibly describe here – it simply must be seen. Absolutely not to be missed. Astrid Burchardt, 29th September 2023
Ai Weiwei In Search of Humanity continues at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 3rd March 2024.