1 May - 26 July 2008
Ai Weiwei: Under Construction is the inaugural exhibition of Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) for 2008.
Dr Gene Sherman, Chairman, Executive Director of SCAF, says: ‘Ai Weiwei’s artistic output, based on the formulation of ideas, is interwoven with his political thinking and illuminates for the audience the internal struggles China currently faces, as well as deep human concerns.’
With two works, the massive commissioned installationThrough, 2007–08, which fills the entire gallery space, andFairytale – Film, 2008, Ai Weiwei continues his cultural iconoclasm while at the same time creating a DVD that shows art and life combined in a multi-layered gesture of exceptional generosity.
In conceptualising Through, Ai Weiwei’s realises, on a grand scale, an artwork that uses deconstructed Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) tables and ancient temple beams refashioned into complex relationships. These relationships are symbolic and structural, referencing the destruction and reinvention that is a recurring theme in Chinese history, and described by curator and catalogue author Dr Charles Merewether as ‘ruins in reverse’.
Karen Smith, viewing the work in Ai Weiwei’s Beijing studio before it was de-assembled for consignment to Sydney, said that ‘the wooden beams appear to impale the tables, as if fixing them to the spot like victims of a sacrificial rite’.
Ai Weiwei explained: ‘I actually had the idea for Throughbefore Template [a monumental structure created by the artist for Documenta XII] collapsed … I had been thinking about the feeling of unease people have facing huge structures … Perhaps the size of my [recent] works only shows my inability to condense the concepts intellectually … As we know, no one is impressed by scale alone. However, certain objects, certain materials, need a certain scale to achieve a clear identity and voice, and that is what large-scale events provide. Artists are not in a position to decide the conditions imposed upon them but they can make statements about those conditions.’ (Artist Profile, Autumn 2008, p. 56).
Through is the last in a series of works using furniture and temple beams. Its construction was complex, labour intensive and time consuming: ‘A group of ten to fifteen carpenters (have) worked with me over the past eleven years. They did all my works that are related to wood, so the actual decisions and judgments are not really based on the work but on eleven years of history, I am always involved by making all the decisions and judgments and communicating with the co-workers. It is very much like director and actors.’
The genesis of Fairytale – Film is altogether different. When Ai Weiwei was invited to participate in Documenta XII, he displayed a characteristic desire to work outside conventional art forms and create a work with ordinary people at its heart. Referencing the Brothers Grimm (whose hometown Kassel is implicit in the title) Ai Weiwei conceived of an audacious plan. He invited 1001 Chinese citizens of all ages and backgrounds from across China to experience this unique art event and become part of it – free of cost, with money to spend, and able to spend their time as they wished. This was achieved through an immensely complex effort of planning and organisation, covering everything from the participants’ passport and travel arrangements to the design of their luggage and living quarters.
In a second project, Ai Weiwei conceived of and executed the shipping of 1001 late Ming and Qing Dynasty chairs to Kassel to become ‘stations of reflection’ in and around the city, available to all for the duration (16 June – 23 September 2007).
When asked by Catherine Yu-Shan Hseih, Associate Editor of NY Arts (March–April 2008), about the significance of the number 1001, Ai Weiwei explained: ‘The number 1001 is one person more than one thousand. The significance is to try to emphasise individuals rather than groups. To me it would suggest and relate to collected individuals rather than a group. It represents individual consciousness and awareness.’
Such was Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale, 2007 – the subject of a 3-hour film by the artist and an artwork in itself – to be seen by Sydney audiences in its world premiere at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) and Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC) in a joint exhibition titled Ai Weiwei: Under Construction.
The extraordinary opportunities afforded by Ai Weiwei to his Chinese compatriots was denied him for much of his life. His background reflects some of the social and political tensions in recent Chinese history. As the son of the once disgraced (but then reinstated) poet Ai Qing, he suffered exile to a distant rural area in northern China. Here, during the Cultural Revolution, his father was forced to clean toilets for many years while Ai Weiwei attended school as a social outcast.
Eventually, Ai Weiwei’s personal and radicalised trajectory took him to the Beijing Film Academy where he became a leader of the avant-garde ‘Stars’ group in 1979. He left Beijing in the early 1980s for New York, where he was drawn to the work of Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. Developing his own conceptual practice over twelve years, Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing in 1993 to see his ailing father. Here he found a new self-consciousness in art, which challenged notions of modernity, western influence and the hegemony of the Chinese system. In 2000 he co-curated (with Feng Boyi) the short-lived exhibition Fuck Off, a group show of confronting work, coinciding with and provoking the orthodoxy of the Shanghai Biennale.
Ai Weiwei is revered internationally as a contemporary icon and cultural commentator. He is an artist, arts entrepreneur, photographer, curator and architect, whose most recent high profile work is his ‘Birds Nest’ concept design of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, on which he collaborated with architects Herzog & de Meuron.
He has developed a distinctive art practice that questions and provokes the Chinese state, while forging a position that allows him to influence broad cultural identity and policy.
As a staunch supporter of human rights and with a strong belief in the need to document and retain historical memory, Ai Weiwei continues fearlessly to criticise the Chinese government where he perceives failings or an unwillingness to take action. As well as Documenta XII, Ai Weiwei’s work has been shown extensively in a range of prestigious events internationally, including the Venice Biennale (1999), the Guangzhou Triennial (2002) and the Biennale of Sydney (2006), with major recent commissions for Tate Liverpool in the UK (2007, 2008).