The Artist is Absent

Ai Weiwei “Evidence”

Martin Gropius Bau (Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin) Apr 3-Jul 7, extended to Jul 13 2014

Ai is not speaking to the critics and academics. “Evidence” is for the masses. Ai is speaking to everyone and he wants everyone to understand, no matter who they are, where they come from or how old they are. And he succeeds. To date there have been over 150,000 visitors and now the show has been extended by a week (an extremely rare accolade from a major public museum).

“6000 wooden stools from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)”, dimensions variable, 2013
© Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s “Evidence” exhibition opened in Berlin on April 2. A long queue formed outside the city’s esteemed Martin Gropius Bau and much of Berlin’s art scene—the great, the good and the political—crowded into the ground and mezzanine colonnades of the hall; the center was roped off to protect an installation of 6,000 empty “Qing and Ming” stools. These were at the heart of the problem.

Do I dare say it? Yes, it is a bad show. And it depresses me deeply to say so.

“Han Dynasty Vases and Auto Paint”, Vases from the Han Dynasty (202 b. C. – 220 A. D.) and auto paint, 2014
© Ai Weiwei. Foto © Mathias Völzke

Close to the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German reunification, and the vast Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with its 2,711 concrete stele, the location is laden with meaning and historical numbers—usually catnip to Ai Weiwei. And yet “Evidence” holds none of the rigor of his “So Sorry” show in Haus der Kunst in 2009–10, which included the extraordinary 380 sqm “Soft Ground”—969 carpet tiles which mimicked and silenced the marble tile of the Nazi-era hall (place of the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition), and upon which stood 102 massive found upturned tree stumps with their root balls (“Rooted upon”). Nor does it compare with the magical curatorial-performance of “Fairytale” at Documenta 12 in Kassel (2007), in which 1,001 ordinary Chinese people volunteered to travel to Kassel to be housed in the exhibition grounds (travel expenses paid, tent and food provided, including blankets designed by Ai). Inspired by the Arabian story cycle, “A Thousand and One Nights” in which the captured princess Scheherazade, under threat of execution from the evil king, tells stories each night, at the end of which the once grotesque king has been civilized and falls in love with her. The exhibition was an interventionist triumph of cultural exchange, design and logistics.

Ai Weiwei, “Very Yao”, bicycles and aluminium, dimensions variable, 2009-2014

With “Evidence”, as much as it has triumphed, things have also gone horribly wrong. For one, the display often feels like you are in a department store, each section catering to different consumerist whims—and you are.

Ai Weiwei “River Crabs”, porcelain pieces, dimensions variable, 2010- (image courtesy Chris Moore)

“River Crabs” is a pile of red (cooked) and black (uncooked) ceramic crabs—“He Xie” involves a popular word play that confuses “river crab” with “harmony”. But here it is also an exclusive consumer item. As a critic, one test I use of an art work’s intellectual chops is whether it could be more succinctly presented by other means, e.g. in words. In the present case, my immediate thought was: “Why not just put a pile of real crabs on the floor, and let their stench reek?” Surely this is what Gu Dexin would have done—but Gu has retired from art completely, whereas Ai is still very much in the game.

Or “Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint” (2014), which seems just to be going through the paces of “Colored Vases” (2008), which was a truly original work.

“Stools” (2014), the 6,000 (!) “Ming and Qing dynasty” grid of closely packed stools filling the glass-covered central atrium to create a false-floor lacks the metamorphic scorpion-animation of the stool-combine “Grapes” (2008). And one is not allowed to walk on it, completely undermining the minimalist and anthropomorphic intent (what’s the point of such an intervention without people?), which recalls the health and safety issue that stopped people walking on the millions of sunflower seeds installed in Tate Modern Turbine Hall (2010–11) and the floor near the trees in Haus der Kunst.

Ai Weiwei “Stools” 2014, installation in exhibition “Evidence” at Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin (image courtesy Chris Moore)

Recent artworks seem driven by the need to make objects to sell, which is maybe not only a function of the artist’s well-known battles with the authorities in China, but the fact that he is also running an enormous enterprise. Maybe he needs to take a leaf out of Duchamp’s book—his hero—and make less, but better.

Some works seem like knee-jerk reactions to prominent political issues involving China, such as the carved marble model of the disputed Diao Yu / Senkaku Islands between China and Japan. It is as if Ai is assuming a monopoly on all possible political debates in China. And in case you missed that, every single work has a didactic wall plaque. It feels like Agitprop because it is.

A 1:1 model of his prison cell allows one to see how he lived during his incarceration, including the foam padded walls. As uncomfortable as it apparently was, it is a strange choice to display it, given the conditions endured by lots of other people. It is fine to use yourself as your medium, but you still have to maintain critical distance—especially when the medium is yourself.

As I wandered through each room, noting how the mass of “Studies in Perspective” photos just blended into one another and the thousands of IOUs to his supporters became just wallpaper, I thought back to a few weeks earlier when I was surprised by a simple video Ai made a decade ago, “Beijing 2003”, a 150-hour “map” of every street within Beijing’s fourth ring road. It is also on display in “Evidence” but the almost casual TV display at neugerriemschneider was the more meaningful (particularly in conjunction with James Benning’s “Stemple Pass” (2012), which meditates on the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski—because Ai’s work is not only about context, but contrast).*

It is reckless though to take Ai at face value. He plays to the crowd but he also plays with the crowd. On the one hand he has put on a wondrous display of objets d’art and objets trouvés to appeal to collectors and Western gullibility—the noble but also neurotically condescending Western tendency to proselytize. The exhibition is indeed a machine, to communicate and promote his philosophical and political position and his status as artist, activist and celebrity. Sometime that makes for a strange mix but that is inevitable. Those who doubt his sincerity I believe are wrong. Ai is very sincere but we should not also expect him to be a saint. His unique position makes that impossible anyway. The thousands of empty stools are an intensely poignant statement about the physical and personal life of people in a vast, centrally organized society. As much as one stool is similar to another, each is ultimately unique in aspect and history.

In China, Ai has been almost completely silenced. The “Gangnam Style” spoofs of K-Pop star Psy’s viral parody, are unseen. Ai is absent too from his beloved Weibo micro-blogging. This is one of the biggest failings of the show, because for all its frequent grandeur and pomposity, the real power of Ai’s art lies in the interstices of life, in his ability to communicate and connect with people, his generosity of spirit, his humor and his charm. Sadly, this artist was absent.

With thanks to Alexander Ochs for his sympathetic and thoughtful comments regarding the exhibition.

* “Seven Films About Time and Space: Ai Weiwei, James Benning, Olafur Eliasson, Sharon Lockhart, Antje Majewski, Simon Starling, Rirkrit Tiravanija” at neugerriemschneider (Linienstrasse 155, Berlin 10155) Nov 26, 2013–Feb 15, 2014

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