MASTERPIECE | AI WEIWEI’S “EVIDENCE” AT MARTIN GROPIUS BAU, BERLIN
On display concurrently with his Brooklyn Museum retrospective, Ai WeiWei’s new show Evidence at Gallery Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin is his largest solo exhibition to date. Quite an achievement, when you consider the fact that the artist is unable to leave China, and cannot even leave his studio in rural Beijing without being monitored by the Chinese Government.
The exhibition is (like most of the artist’s work) overtly political, dealing with internal Chinese affairs, freedom of speech in China and “China and the West”. The name itself seems highly ironic – if evidence is a piece of information, of proof which will stand up in court then why is so much of the evidence he has found, produced or publicised so fluidly and unapologetically dismissed, buried or suppressed. The very first work in the foyer of the building underlines such gross injustices, a piece called ‘Very Yao’ made from 150 bicycles. Created using a common Chinese brand of bicycle called ‘Forever’, the tessellating mass commemorates young Beijing resident Yang Jia who was illegally arrested on the premise of riding an unlicensed bicycle rental. During his detention he was violently assaulted, before being accused of murdering six police officers and being sentenced to death. Although a national sensation in China this is something we are perhaps not so aware of, and the piece consciously sets the tone for the subsequent works in the exhibition to come.
One such piece was “81”, part of the outcome of Ai WeiWei’s investigation into an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 which caused the death of tens of thousands of people, many children who died in schools which were later believed to have substandard construction. The artist went about collecting the names of all of the students killed in the disaster, and with the help of around 50 researchers and volunteers created the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, which he recorded on his blog. By the time about two weeks had passed the project had recorded the names of over 5,000 students, the majority of which were from 18 of the 14,000 damaged schools. The discrepancy between this uncovered information and that provided by the government was evident, and subsequently the blog was shut down and censored. Perhaps even more chilling than the whole affair is part of the event’s aftermath. Ai WeiWei was due to testify at the court trial of a writer, also involved in their own investigation on the earthquake, when he was detained by authorities, prevented from appearing in court and received injuries so great that he suffered a brain hemorrhage.
As if this amount of adversity weren’t enough to discourage anyone from continuing with their practice, Ai WeiWei has remained staunch in his convictions throughout, instead of yielding to the oppressive regimes prescribed to him taking his experiences and creating something tangible from them to provoke discussion and perhaps at last action. The piece “81” is a particularly good example of this, a perfect replica of the cabin our protagonist was held in for 81 days after being detained by the government on initially no cited charges, kept in a cell with the lights on 24 hours a day and constantly monitored by guards. Walking into the cell the smell is overpowering – everything inside the location covered in a thick layer of white foam.
On a more awe-inspiring note, is the exhibitions centerpiece, "Stools," an installation of over 6,000 wooden stools in the gallery's massive atrium from the Ming and Qing dynasties which Weiwei gathered from villages across Northern China. A basic household staple, each stool bears traces of daily use and wear-and-tear, and a solid, simple structure that speaks to an unchanged design language for hundreds of years.
Paying homage to the frustration of working within the Chinese system is the piece "Souvenir From Shanghai," an installation made with materials from a site in Malu town, Jiading District, where Weiwei was invited by authorities in Shanghai to build a studio. However, just as construction was completed, the artist was informed that the building would be destroyed as punishment for his increasingly outspoken criticism of the government.
One of Weiwei's most interesting critiques of Chinese society comes in the form of his "Colored Vases" series. For this, the artist covered eight ancient, neolithic vases in metallic auto paint. Their smooth and pristinely reflective surfaces obscure the luster and texture of the ancient vases concealed below. solid colors from the standard chromatic palette used on mercedes-benz and BMW automobiles, and the lust for power they symbolize in Chinese markets, create an interesting contrast with the form of the historic pieces. the addition of surface paint both disrupts and preserves the original, and asks us to consider how we determine the real significance of history and civilization.
Despite these heavy, heavy topics the sensation when viewing the show is not always that of wading through a hideous, sticky treacle, amongst the notes of defiance notes of hope and solidarity also emerge, perhaps not more so than in the ‘IOU wallpaper’ covering two rooms in the space. Evidence recording the financial help of thousands of Chinese citizens who helped Ai WeiWei when the artist was told to pay 1.7 million euros in tax back to the government within 15 days after his 81 day detainment, the overwhelming support speaks volumes about the Chinese people’s feelings towards the actions of their government.
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