Two exhibitions of new work by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei have opened in the UK. The first at a public art gallery in Yorkshire (Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) is his first in a British public gallery since Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010. iron tree, 2013 is a majestic six-metre high sculpture is presented in the chapel courtyard, while the installation Fairytale-1001 chairs, 2007-14, is presented inside the chapel with two other works: the porcelain Ruyi, 2012, and marble sculpture, lantern, 2014, which makes its premiere in the UK. The sculptures shown within the chapel relate to ideas about freedom and to the individual within society, whilst also connecting with the history and character of the building.
iron tree is the largest and most complex sculpture to date in the artist’s tree series, which he began in 2009. Inspired by the wood sold by street vendors in Jingdezhen, southern China, Ai’s trees are constructed from branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculptures are obviously pieced and joined together, being all the more poignant for their lack of life. iron tree comprises 99 elements cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. Combining both the natural and crafted, the sculpture will rust over time and its installation in the secluded chapel garden makes a meditative space that gives pause for thought and is a powerful reminder of the cycles of nature.
The second part of the exhibition, Fairytale-1001 chairs, extends Ai’s major project for Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, for which he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person with an antique chair. This transformational experience highlighted the complications of travel for ordinary Chinese citizens. Since his arrest in 2011, Ai’s own travel has been strictly limited and his passport is currently confiscated.
Ai has selected two other works for the chapel. Ruyi translates to “as one wishes” and so alludes to wish-fulfilment. Sitting somewhere between fungal organic form and human internal organs, this lividly-coloured porcelain sculpture is one of a number of Ruyi made by Ai Weiwei that take the traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Like talking sticks in other cultures, ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, so enabling orderly and democratic discourse.
The second exhibition is mounted in a London commercial gallery (his third solo exhibition with Lisson Gallery) for this Mr Ai has created a monumental new installation of bicycles as part of an ongoing series, ‘Forever’, as well as a number of hand-carved, domestic-scale copies – in various materials including wood, stainless steel and crystal – of some highly personal objects. These include: a marble recreation of his father’s armchair; two sets of humble cosmetics bottles fashioned from jade; various handmade facsimiles of coat-hangers and pairs of handcuffs; as well as the window handles taken from Beijing taxis, which appear to be readymades, only remade in clear glass.
Although some of the sculptures in this show relate to his secret detention of 2011 – during which he spent 81 days accompanied only by his interrogators and the scant furnishings of his cell – the overall impression is of Ai’s life as it was before and currently is in Beijing, confined as he is to his native China. The formative influence and example of Marcel Duchamp, as an artistic hero of Ai’s discovered during his period living in New York from 1983–93, also looms large.
A ghostly, carved-marble gas mask, like a deaths-head emerging from a tomb, relates to the perpetual pollution experienced in the Chinese capital city, while the massing of bicycles also addresses a stereotypical national symbol in an uncompromising and unconventional way. Ai’s groupings of stainless-steel bikes – here configured in different modular shapes and layers of geometrically stacked structures – refer to the famous ‘Forever’ brand of bicycles that have been mass-manufactured in Shanghai since 1940. Once ubiquitous, this classic marque and indeed the perceived profusion of pushbikes on Beijing streets are now steadily dying out, to be replaced by smog-emitting cars on clogged highways and six-lane ring roads. The transparent Taxi Window Crank pieces are further examples of a surreal political system that insists on removing such mundane items from public life for fear that protesters would transmit their leaflets through car windows during sensitive times.
He is the subject of two other international solo exhibitions, in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau (‘Evidence’, until 7 July) and in New York, where his touring show: ‘Ai Weiwei: According to What’ ends on 10 August.
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957 and spent his childhood in forced exile. He moved to New York in 1981, returning to his ailing father in Beijing in 1993, where he continues to live and work, although under strict restrictions. He is widely respected as one of the most versatile and influential artists of our time. A prolific artist, architect, author and activist, Ai is a vocal critic of China’s record on democracy and human rights and in 2011 he was arrested and held for 81 days without charge, prompting worldwide official and public protest. His 2013 heavy metal video dumbass (from the album the divine comedy) describes explicitly his treatment during detention. Recent and current solo exhibitions include evidence, Martin-Gropius-bau, Berlin; ai weiwei: according to what?, Pérez Art Museum Miami; ai weiwei. Resistance and tradition, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, Seville, Spain; German Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, Italy. With Herzog & de Meuron, Ai Weiwei was architect for the National Stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Ai Weiwei YSP 24 May–2 november 2014
Ai Weiwei Lisson Gallery London 23 May – 19 July