A significant exhibition by Ai Weiwei featuring a new series of monumental sculptural works in iron cast from large tree roots sourced in Brazil during research and production for last year’s survey exhibition, ‘Raiz’, at the Oscar Niemeyer-designed OCA Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo.
Ai worked with local artisans and communities across Brazil
Visiting Trancoso in the east to locate roots and trunks from the endangered Pequi Vinagreiro tree, typically found in the Bahian rainforest. Elements of these rare tree roots, some of which could be over a thousand years old, were painstakingly moulded, conjoined and then cast to create striking compositions and bold forms that reflect their Brazilian heritage. While some resemble great jungle beasts or fantastical creatures, such as the three- and four-legged works Fly and Level, others including Party and Martin (all 2019) consist of shattered, exploded root forms radiating outwards from a central nexus.
The titles all came as suggestions from Ai Weiwei’s young son Ai Lao, based on his personal observations or connections made when visiting these tree remains with his father, adding to the sense of surreal displacement and alien disjointedness in the exhibition. This incongruous atmosphere speaks further of the works’ depiction of the state of ‘uprootedness’, one that mirrors not only the artist’s peripatetic existence after being allowed to leave China in 2015, but also the plight of the refugees he has spent the last few years documenting, as well as the various indigenous populations that rely on the trees and forests of Brazil for their habitats and sustenance.
The deforestation and concomitant purge of peoples and resources relate to previous bodies of work produced by Ai and to the current political realities of many countries, including his native China.
The material employed in making the Roots series – cast iron covered in a patina of orange rust – likewise responds to ancient cultures and man’s first tools for tree felling and woodworking, rather than to the recent, more polite art history of bronze or steel sculpture. Although originally contorted by their surrounding landscapes, these roots were not born of nature but made and crafted by human hands, using the ancient techniques of ‘lost wax’ moulding and then iron casting. These methods represent a traditional, mostly bygone way of life that has been usurped and upended by industrialisation and constant modernisation, illustrating how progress can often come at the expense of cultural and societal well-being.
Contrasting with these massive, land-bound creatures is several floating figures, clouds and dream-like vignettes. Ai has been producing delicate sculptures from stretched silk over bamboo armatures for the past five years, employing a group of Chinese kite makers based in Weifang, a city in Shandong province. Purported to have been invented in China around 500 BC by a carpenter and a philosopher, the kite has held many functions throughout history from measuring distances or wind speed to communication and military usage. Ai’s kites refer back to a mythological encyclopaedia of monsters and creatures known as Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas) that also pre-dated Christianity, which depicts fantastical hybrids of chimera, gorgons, unicorns, dragons and griffins. Alongside this bestiary, Ai has added personal and childhood symbols, as well as references back to his own works – Surveillance Camera and his one-fingered salutes, the Study of Perspective series – and those of his influences, including Marcel Duchamp and Vladimir Tatlin.
Finally, the show ends with the development of Ai’s experimentation with LEGO bricks. These new wall-based works feature politically-charged, pixelated renderings of the trajectory of a refugee boat refused docking at Lampedusa after two weeks at sea, the front page of the Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, as well as a deconstructed symbol of the contentious protests of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
A new book, also entitled Roots – featuring contributions from nature writer Robert Macfarlane; Distanz will publish the curator of ‘Raiz’, Marcello Dantas; the Chair of Asian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Christina Yu Yu; Brazilian anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz among others – on the occasion of this exhibition, which is presented in collaboration with Ai’s Berlin gallery, neugerriemschneider.
A global citizen, artist and thinker, Ai Weiwei moves between modes of production and investigation, subject to the direction and outcome of his research, whether into the Chinese earthquake of 2008 (for works such as Straight, 2008-12 and Remembering, 2009) or the worldwide plight of refugees and forced migrants (for Law of the Journey and his feature-length documentaries, Human Flow and The Rest). From early iconoclastic positions in regards to authority and history, which included Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and a series of middle-finger salutes to sites of power, Study of Perspective (both 1995), Ai’s production expanded to encompass architecture, public art and performance. Beyond concerns of form or protest, Ai now measures our existence about economic, political, natural and social forces, uniting the craftsmanship with conceptual creativity. Universal symbols of humanity and community, such as bicycles, flowers and trees, as well as the perennial problems of borders and conflicts are given renewed potency through installations, sculptures, films and photographs, while Ai continues to speak out publicly on issues he believes necessary.
Ai Weiwei: Roots 2 October – 2 November 2019 Lisson Gallery London