1.14 / Review

Ai Weiwei

By Brady Welch May 5, 2010
Snake Bag, 2008; 360 backpacks; 15.75 x 27.5 x 670 in. Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: Monique Deschaines

To view Ai Weiwei’s work in a gallery after having only read about it could be compared to the experience of rolling into Los Angeles after having only read the novels of Charles Bukowski. Based on such reports, one might be forgiven for expecting a different form, or at least emphasis, to have taken shape in reality. Weiwei the activist—outspoken, overt, and confrontational— is largely absent from “Ai Weiwei,” the survey of recent sculptural work on view at Haines Gallery. Tapping into the hefty events of recent Chinese history, Weiwei manages to mute—but never silence—his politics by infusing the work with cultural symbolism and relatively few materials to create a variety of understated forms.

The artist uses one of these materials, porcelain, in homage to both its centrality in Chinese craftsmanship and its continued use in contemporary consumer culture. In the two examples of Dress With Flowers (2006), Weiwei channels the material’s centuries-old pedigree to transmogrify what were originally dime-a-dozen dresses he purchased from a general store. But cheap is cheap, so Weiwei lays the porcelain dresses on the ground, as if discarded, on a small platform only slightly higher than the gallery floor. Contrary to what I take as the works’ intended lifelessness, I found much vitality in the dresses’ billowing folds and floral patterns, expertly re-created with the help of master porcelain artisans of Jingdezhen.

Another porcelain work, also displayed on the ground, is Kui Hua Zi (2009), a pile of life-size, individual sunflower seeds. It is easily the most photogenic piece in the show, and probably because of that, appears much smaller when viewed in person. Nevertheless, it’s a quarter ton of ceramic material, and displayed as it is in the middle of the gallery’s white space, it draws the viewer’s attention. The work is said to reference the diet of China’s hapless peasants who, after being caught up in Mao’s draconian attempt at agricultural collectivization known as the Great Leap Forward, were reduced to eating what was essentially bird food. The piece also undoubtedly represents a portion of the 20 million people who eventually starved to death. The seeds’ most powerful symbolism goes beyond their literal representation as slave rations. To the Chinese government—which continues to deify Mao in ceremony and on currency—those millions, and their exhausted utility, might as well have been a pile of discarded husks. 

In Snake Bag (2008), Weiwei tries to highlight the plight of another generation of Chinese wiped from the face of the earth, as well as government accounts: the thousands of children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.To date, no accurate report has emerged of who or how many actually died, although Weiwei created a highly publicized and controversial blog in an attempt to resolve the matter. The government eventually shut it down. In lieu of a dead reckoning of facts, Weiwei gives the viewer a winding assemblage of 360 identical black and grey backpacks, one fitted inside another and sewn together to form an unmistakable serpent from which the work takes its name. Undoubtedly a nod to the venerated role of dragons in Eastern cultures, Weiwei's piece also represents the Chinese government as a source of devilish trickery, much like the serpent at the heart of Judeo-Christian theology.

Kui Hua Zi, 2009; porcelain; 250 kg (1/4 ton). Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: Monique Deschaines.

One of the finest pieces in the show has the least strictly political backstory. Owl Houses (2010), a grouping of ten porcelain birdhouses individually and exquisitely painted with traditional Chinese forms, was commissioned by the For-Site Foundation, the group that commissioned Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire for the Presidio in 2008. For-Site is devoted to art about place, and on May 16, as part of their “Presidio Habitats” exhibition, Owl Houses will be installed in the lower branches of two cypress trees next to the Officer's Home at Fort Scott. According to the exhibition’s website, the show (which includes eight other artists, architects, and designers) is “the first site-based exhibition to be organized for, and presented in, a U.S. national park.” All of the projects create habitats for animals native to the park, and Weiwei’s contribution hopes to attract the Western screech owl, a bird that makes its home in hollow cavities found inside trees, previously carved out by woodpeckers. These dome-like caverns lend their shape to Weiwei’s bulbous forms. While not much is known about screech owls’ attraction to porcelain, the boxes will look entirely more fitting affixed to trees than to the white wall of the Haines Gallery—a fact surely not lost on Cheryl Haines, director of both the For-Site Foundation and the gallery that bears her name.

The success of Weiwei's show rests with his ability to translate multifarious issues into deceptively simple vessels; this testifies to both his talent as an artist, and it is fair to say, his age. Weiwei is 53. He was alive during the great social events and upheavals to which his work so often speaks. Had the pieces at Haines Gallery emerged at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests (when Weiwei would have been 32), we could no doubt envision artwork more confrontational, angry, and blunt—for politics in the hands of the young is an inflammatory thing. Weiwei's work in this show, however, is the result of a seasoned mind: unflinchingly mindful of the past and yet unhurriedly graceful.

Ai Weiwei is on view at Haines Gallery in San Francisco through May 29, 2010.

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