at Mori Art Museum
in the Roppongi, Nogizaka area
This event has ended - (2009-07-25 - 2009-11-08)
Paul Gauguin famously said, “Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” In still-conservative China, artist Ai Weiwei appears unafraid in birthing works that embody the latter. He impinges artistic revolution not with autobiographical expressiveness but with the color of unemotional social commentary. Ai, perhaps best known for his role in the design of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, has emerged at the forefront of China’s contemporary art scene as a media-versatile artist (having tried his hand at furniture design, installation art and photography, amongst others) with the bravery to voice staunch socio-cultural statements. This summer he has gained another recognition badge as the first Chinese artist to hold a solo exhibition at the upscale Mori Art Museum.
As indicated in the entrance message of the exhibition, contemporary Chinese art has received increasing international attention over the past decade. Mori’s curators believe the pivotal time has arrived when group exhibitions of contemporary Chinese artists—of which Mori has had two over the past couple of years—no longer suffice. A new trend of zeroing in on individual Chinese artists looks set to begin, and the selection of Ai as the icebreaker is befitting as an examination of the directions of artistic expression in the country and its value in the market. Beneath the surface, this exhibition allows us to see the liberties and censorships the Chinese government hands out to artists in a society that is still very much amidst a dynamic clash between tradition and change.
Mori has assembled together a varied concoction of Ai’s art, some far less intriguing than others. One such work is a ten-hour long “documentary” consisting of one-minute impromptu clips of randomly selected streets (100 meters apart from each other—mathematical patterns are an important device in Ai’s works) in a Chinese city. The purpose of this video is described as showing the urban uniformity of modern China. I sat through five minutes of the documentary, which was wonderfully projected to cover an entire wall from corner to corner. There is clearly implicit social commentary in the work, and in his laborious videotaping Ai has captured a China on the crossroad towards full-blown industrialization. However, Ai’s very nature (without any aesthetic deliberation) leads one to wonder if this belongs to the realm of art, if it is a form of experimental social observation, or if it is simply a project of interest taken up by someone who happened to be a well-recognized artist.
Despite the presence of several a-la-Duchamp works made from found objects or “ready-mades” that are possibly ambiguous in their stance as art (for instance, an antique Chinese courtesan figurine humorously inserted into an Absolut Vodka bottle to indicate the unchanging nature of human desires), the power to evoke thoughts and stir conversations in the mind is undoubtedly Ai’s element. His imaginative powers find fertile manifestations in various media. Many of the works on display are on an architectural scale, such as his ‘Moon Chest’ (a series of Chinese wooden cabinets with holes carved in the center) or his one-cubic-ton of compressed Puer tea leaves that one must walk around. And Mori has the space to afford the viewer an uninhibited experience with such works.
The exhibition offers a comprehensive look at Ai’s artistic and thematic range, yet to appreciate Ai’s works requires a broader definition of the forms art can take, at times stripping it entirely of aesthetic deliberation. As is evident when viewing one of his most popular works in the exhibition, ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’, a three-photograph series in black-and-white of the artist dropping a two-millennia-old historical artifact, Ai’s work may be distasteful to those unwilling to entertain that truths can be achieved through the destruction of the familiar and the sacred.