sat 23/01/2021

Ai Weiwei, Lisson Gallery & Somerset House | reviews, news & interviews

Ai Weiwei, Lisson Gallery & Somerset House

Ai Weiwei, Lisson Gallery & Somerset House

The man may be in prison but his art makes two stellar shows

It is now 37 days since Ai Weiwei was detained at Beijing international airport by the Chinese authorities. His family and friends have heard nothing since. His lawyer, to whom under Chinese law he must have access, was arrested as well, and since his own release he too has heard nothing. Officially, unless charges are brought today, the period in which he can be held without charge expires. And yet, where is Ai Weiwei? The whereabouts of Ai Weiwei the man are unknown. In London, however, Ai Weiwei the artist makes two stellar appearances.

“Liberty,” writes Ai Weiwei, “is about our right to question everything,” and he certainly does that. His work has, through the years, concerned itself greatly with questions of authenticity and fakes, the real versus the expedient, the surface, and how the real, the valuable, relates to the political and the social.

He is, at one and the same time, an artist who is terribly complex, and yet his work is just as terribly easy to understand, and even easier to like. At Somerset House, in the courtyard, his Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads (main picture) has been installed. These 12 giant heads are replicas of a set of historical animal heads designed as a fountain clock (they squirted water every two hours) by Jesuits for the Qianlong Emperor. In 1860, they were pillaged by the French and British, and removed as war loot. Seven have since been located, the remainder have never been identified, and may not exist.

These replicas, in the setting of the 18th-century courtyard, create a dialogue with history, forcing us to confront the reality of destruction by war, but also the hegemony of Europe which is now in the process of being overturned. And, it must be said, they are also delightful in their own right, quirky as is much of Ai’s work, and just anthropomorphically attractive even to those who have no interest in contemporary art. (There is also a small display inside, explaining the historical context.)

Ai_Weiwei__Colored_VasesThe Lisson Gallery has pulled out all the stops for their exhibition of smaller pieces. The front of the gallery is decorated with a two-storey high photograph of the artist himself, looking very serene, and, in size and scale, very much resembling the posters of Mao that once decorated so much of China. The irony is not lost.

Several of the works here continue Ai’s engagement with the past and how we reconstruct it. Coffin and Moon Chest both use wood salvaged from temples that were being demolished: Coffin has a row of benches set beside it, like a picnic table for the missing; Moon Chest is made up of four huge upright pieces, with holes cut through the centre, angled so that the viewer gets a glimpse of – the moon? Yin and yang? The puzzle remains. Coloured Vases (pictured above, courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery) are a massing of neolithic-era pots, which the artist has covered with modern industrial paint in equally industrial colours. Fake layered on the real, or is it the other way around?

Ai_Weiwei_Surveillance_CameraThe most haunting piece is Surveillance Camera (pictured left, courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery), a reproduction camera made out of marble. It is aimed out of the gallery’s broad window, seemingly photographing the Lisson’s own surveillance camera outside, or perhaps the schoolchildren playing tennis across the road – who are the surveilled, who the surveillors? What is the role of the individual in society? And what is society? And all this occurs under the eyes of the missing man, facing outwards from his photograph on the building.

It is good to see these works, even without the horror of the treatment of the artist. The exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds at the Tate was not really a success – worries about health and safety from dust created when the seeds were walked on, as the artist intended, meant that they were roped off, and looked like nothing so much as a genteel gravel path in a suburban park: not the intention.

Now, with the Lisson show and Somerset House’s displays, we see once more the truth that Ai serves: "Words can be deleted," he says, "but the facts won't be deleted with them."

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Yes, where is he, or rather when will he get out? The bronze heads are playful with active poses, excellent dragon. I disagree about the Sunflower seeds - making me think about the people of China, their history of craftsmanship and also issues of mass production. Audacious, very big and very small at the same time. Didn't see the image of AWW outside the Lisson and missed the marble camera, plus the moon piece. Generally didn't find this a user friendly gallery but glad for the chance to see the rest of it all the same

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