Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and political activist, has been missing and out of contact with his London gallery (The Lisson Gallery) since he was detained by authorities in Beijing while boarding a flight to Hong Kong on 3rd April.
Two weeks ago, his New York installation was set up thanks to his studio assistants. The work was widely covered by the press, who gave it a universal thumbs up. This week has been a busy one for the artist, a mirror installation was unveiled in London’s Somerset house. It consists of 12 large bronze animal heads titled Circle of Animals the Zodiac Heads. The dogs, rats, rabbits, pigs and snakes are based on representations of the Chinese zodiac and are based on images that once adorned the fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan, The Summer Palace. In 1860, the imperial palace was ransacked by French and British troops during the opium wars when the heads were pillaged. Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent owned the rabbit and the rat heads and when his collection was auctioned in 2008, the Chinese foreign ministry demanded that they be returned. The auction was sabotaged by false bids and had to be renegotiated.
The Lisson Gallery is now exhibiting a selection of the artist’s works from the past 10 years. They include a bent coffin with benches made from wood taken from dismantled temples of the Qing dynasty, and four imposing wooden chests with circular holes in them that create the experience of watching different phases of the moon. The most beautiful, and yet, the most uncomfortable of the works here, are collections of Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) vases that Ai has painted in bright splashy shades of industrial paint. Greg Hilty, the Lisson Gallery exhibition director and curator of the Ai Weiwei show remembers how relaxed the artist was when he last visited him in Beijing at the beginning of the year. “Generally he would rather laugh it off,” he says. “He and his colleagues took it all very much in their stride.”
In many ways deeply political, Ai Weiwei’s work explores the tension in ideology, what he describes “as being between a more interesting state of mind and a more dreadful state of mind. The artist should be for the interesting against the dreadful.” Using a variety of formal languages with both traditional and innovative methods of production, Ai links the past with the present and explores the geopolitical, economic and cultural realities affecting the world with humour and compassion. Described as “the best artist to have appeared since the Cultural Revolution in China” , his work can be seen as a succession of gestures critiquing both commodity fetishism and the society in which he lives. The exhibition runs until 16 Jul 2011
A respectful opening ceremony took place this week at Somerset house which included readings of his sayings was led by Gwyn Miles the director of the Somerset House Trust she stated that, “Along with many people around the world, we are hoping for his quick and safe release and that he should be allowed to continue his powerful work as an artist, able to speak freely without constraint.”
“We believe the best support we can give Ai Weiwei is to show his stunning new work and to demonstrate the power of his vision.” The exhibitions continue through June.