Ai Weiwei exhibit review
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Ai Weiwei exhibit review

When he left for New York in the early 1980s, Ai Weiwei joked that on his return to China his friends would see a ‘new Picasso'; he has since ceased to make any such claims for himself and has left the job to journalists and curators. Unlike many artists

Thu 22 Nov 2012 1:00 AM

When he left for New York in the early 1980s, Ai Weiwei joked that on his return to China his friends would see a ‘new Picasso’; he has since ceased to make any such claims for himself and has left the job to journalists and curators. Unlike many artists of the recent (as well as more distant) past, Ai Weiwei does not subscribe to a program of self-mythologization or mystification: at the centre of his artistic project is a commitment to transparency, both personal and political, and a conviction in the social necessity of uncensored individual expression. For those unfamiliar with Ai Weiwei, the eponymously titled show in San Gimignano offers an excellent introduction to the artist; for those better acquainted, it presents an opportunity to see works previously unseen both internationally as well as in Italy.


The show could be understood as a kind of condensed retrospective: the works presented here date from 1994 – just after Ai had returned to China after 12 years in New York – to the present day, as well as giving space to the representation of as yet unrealized projects. The latter we see in the enormous installation Ordos 100, which is a wooden model for a colossal architectural undertaking in the Mongolian desert, currently in progress. Next to this, and similarly monumental, is his sculptural work Stacked, constructed from 760 bicycles. Other sculptural works in both marble and porcelain are present, with the piece Bubble of Twenty Five impressively installed in the Continua garden.


More interesting, and more affecting, are the works that better express the inseparability of Ai Weiwei’s political convictions and his personal life. The installation of 7,677 photographs on 12 monitors (called 258 Fake, after the address and name of his Beijing Studio) records a combination of events that are personal and humorous alongside those that are intensely serious. Amongst them is a series of semi-absurd ‘holiday’ snaps (Ai Weiwei trying on an enormous purple hat in some exotic location; Ai Weiwei wearing a pair of joke spectacles, Ai Weiwei posing next to national monuments, and so on) in juxtaposition with much graver images of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.


Connected to these photographs is the work Brain Inflation, which is a reproduction of the MRI scan of Ai Weiwei’s skull that displays the brain hemorrhage caused by police brutality following the artist’s investigation into the number of victims of the 2008 earthquake. Investigation by Ai Weiwei and others revealed what has since been called ‘tofu dregs’ construction in the building of schools, hospitals and factories in the region. Local corruption and the use of sub-standard materials meant that these buildings collapsed in their totality while other buildings remained unaffected.


This is Ai Weiwei at his most impressive, and it is for this reason that the praise from journalists and curators that occasionally slips into hyperbole or hagiography is largely justified. The point that is usually missed, however, is that his example is important not only to his fellow Chinese citizens but also further afield. He is an example of what can be achieved if we refuse to become accustomed to the ugly habits of power, and we should not assume this kind of tenacity is necessary only in countries as seemingly remote as China. Those who can recall the details of the 2009 l’Aquila earthquake in Abruzzo, Italy, may remember the unpleasant discovery that many of the collapsed buildings had been constructed using a sub-standard concrete mixed with sand. Though less drastic in loss of life, the tragedy at l’Aquila is no less shocking in its detail than the earthquake of a year earlier in Sichuan. Those who have continued to follow the story will know that the most recent arrests in connection with this event are not those who substituted sand for concrete, but rather the scientists of the region who failed to predict the magnitude of the earthquake in the first place. In his commitment to political transparency Ai Weiwei can offer a lesson to those of us in Europe too.


Exhibit info:

Galleria Continua, Via del Castello 11, San Gimignano (SI)

Until 26th January, 2013, Tuesday-Saturday, 2-7pm



Photo credits: Gao Yuan




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