“Everything is art. Everything is politics”: with these words, the internationally acclaimed contemporary artist Ai Weiwei encapsulates the basic principle of his working approach. This motto is also the leitmotif of his largest exhibition in Europe to date, which will be on view simultaneously at the K20 and the K21 of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.
Large-scale works and extensive image wallpaper from the last four decades transform the museum galleries into dense, accessible installations. The close interlocking of political engagement with artistic activity in the oeuvre of this important and disputatious artist allows the contradictions of the present day to become tangible.
Shown in the large exhibition halls of the K20 – for the first time together in a single exhibition and in their complete forms – are the two key works “Straight” (2008 – 2012) and “Sunflower Seeds” (2010).
These works, each weighing several tons, investigate the status of the individual within society. In a totalitarian state, this question has a special significance. For Ai Weiwei, who grew up in exile, it has been a decisive issue since his early youth. The exhibition at the K20 emphasizes the way in which the artistic works on view must always be considered in direct relationship to the artist’s political engagement: “Straight” tells of a citizens’ initiative launched by Ai Weiwei which is designed to call attention to the names of children killed by an earthquake in Sichuan Province. The wallpaper piece “I.O.U.”, consisting of thousands of promissory notes, and exhibited together with “Sunflower Seeds”, documents the personal risk accepted by Ai Weiwei as a consequence of his criticisms of the Chinese regime.
Sunflower Seeds, 2010
The vast ocean of sunflower seeds was created through a work process that lasted a number of years. More than 60 million handmade, individually painted sunflower seeds, designed from Chinese porcelain, were produced in Jingdezhen, a porcelain manufacturing locale that is steeped in tradition. Now, the seeds have been spread out across an area measuring nearly 650 square metres in the Klee Halle of the K20. In the installation piece “Sunflower Seeds,” Ai Weiwei investigates the role of traditional handcrafts production in an age of mass production and globalization. The sunflower seeds also allude to a specific instance of political symbolism: in posters, Mao Zedong (the former chairman of the Chinese Communist Party) often had himself depicted with a large sun in the background. Just as sunflowers turn toward the sun, the Chinese people were expected to orient themselves toward the great chairman.
I.O.U. Wallpaper, 2011-2013
The field of sunflower seeds is surrounded by a continuous wallpaper that is formed from more than 13,000 promissory notes written in Chinese. Here, the letters “I.O.U.” function as a familiar abbreviation for the words “I owe you.”
Upon his release after spending a period of 81 days in detention, Ai Weiwei received a demand for the immediate settlement by his firm of a tax debt in the amount of 1.7 million euros. Private contributions arriving from around the world made it possible for him to raise this sum. In response, Ai Weiwei designed these artistically fashioned promissory notes, which are displayed here as wallpaper. Recognizable alongside the names of his supporters are sunflower seeds and alpaca stamps, which symbolize the amount donated. Ai Weiwei paid back all of these contributions. In this sense, the numerous donors who supported Ai Weiwei’s efforts toward transparency and justice in China correspond to the 60 million sunflower seeds on display in the Klee Halle.
On top of the wallpaper “I.O.U.” at the K20, Ai Weiwei presents 12 square pictorial objects consisting of Lego bricks, which are joined like digital pixels to form Chinese animal heads. They display the Chinese zodiac symbols in front of famous buildings.
Involved here is a confrontation with 12 fountain figures from the “Old Summer Palace” in Beijing, built in 1747 by an Italian ecclesiastic and a French sculptor. During the Second Opium War of 1860, the figures were looted by British and French troops. Today, a number of them are lost, while others fetched high prices at auction and were later restituted. Despite being the work of Western artists, they enjoy the status of national Chinese cultural symbols, even making an appearance in popular culture, one example being Jackie Chan’s action film “CZ12” from 2012. In conjunction with the prestigious buildings in the background, Ai Weiwei challenges governmental and institutional authority, encouraging reflection on the provenance and fate of national cultural assets.
The installation “Straight” – never before assembled in Europe in complete form – consists of 164 tons of steel rebars, salvaged from the rubble of a collapsed school building following the devastating earthquake that occurred in the Chinese region of Sichuan in 2008. Thousands of schoolchildren lost their lives to the shoddy construction. The mangled rebars were recovered from the ruins and painstakingly straightened. The title Straight refers to “straightening something out”; on the other hand, it evokes associations such as “to straighten up,” “straightforward,” and “talking straight.”
For K20, Ai Weiwei has developed a new arrangement of “Straight”. He now shows the complete material of the original installation in transport crates with open lids, staggered to form a landscape. With this image, both the availability of the material for a dubious new beginning and the infinite grief in the face of coffins lined up in a row can be associated.
At the K20 in Düsseldorf, the artist presents this work in a new form. He displays all of the material from the original installation in open transport crates whose configuration follows the progression of a seismographic line. This spatial arrangement can be associated simultaneously with doubts regarding this material, now made available once again, as well with the sense of sadness that is evoked by a series of coffins.
Exhibition at K21 – Part I
The first part of the exhibition at the K21 features new works dating from the past five years, all produced after Ai Weiwei’s emigration from China and his move to Berlin. Since then, he has been preoccupied in particular with the fate of refugees. With the large installations “Life Cycle” and “Laundromat” and the sprawling wallpapers, Ai Weiwei transforms the exhibition space into an accessible installation which makes the human tragedy of worldwide refugee streams tangible as one of the most urgent challenges of our time.
Against the background of events at the Greek refugee camp at Idomeni, which Ai Weiwei witnessed while making the documentary “Human Flow”, the installation “Laundromat” compiles items left behind by the migrants who were again displaced after their camp was closed in 2016.
Ai Weiwei had the clothes left behind brought to his studio in Berlin and carefully processed. They were washed, patched, ironed, and catalogued. Hanging on standard clothing racks, they are reminiscent of garments on sale in a department store or personal items waiting to be collected in a laundromat. In the exhibition space, they confront visitors with their reality and the history of oppression, flight, persecution, and suffering associated with them. The familiarity of their presentation and style enables a sense of closeness and empathy.
Life Cycle, 2018
“Life Cycle,” a monumental boat with more than 100 over-life-sized bamboo figures, represents the life-threatening passage of many refugees across the Mediterranean sea. This fragile, almost transparent sculpture, consisting of bamboo and sisal rope, measures more than 17 m in length. A number of heads of the refugees have been transformed into figures from the Chinese zodiac, and refer metaphorically both to the dimensions of this humanitarian crisis, as well as to the human life cycle. The citation on the sculpture’s base tells of dangerous journeys, and enjoins us to offer both understanding and assistance to refugees.
During the research for his film “Human Flow,” Ai Weiwei also shot photos in the refugee camps near the French port city of Calais. Since the 1990s, refugees had gathered here in unofficial encampments
known as “jungles.” In early 2015, six thousand people were counted trying to get to Britain from here. The camp was demolished on October 25, 2016.
In this wallpaper, Homer’s well-known narrative of Odysseus’s adventures receives entirely new existential dimensions that go beyond space and time. Rendered in simple, black-and-white graphics that resemble an antique pictorial frieze are motifs of flight and migration that are reminiscent of current images of refugee camps and war, but are also evocative of mythological narratives from ancient Greece or Rome. The effect is an awareness of flight as a supratemporal and global existential theme. Discernible on the wall are six recurring motifs: war, ruins, voyaging, the passage across the sea, the refugee camp, and the political demonstration.
Study of Perspective, 1995 – 2011/2014
On the Odyssey wallpaper, Ai Weiwei has hung the forty-part photo series “Study of Perspective”. In each photo, one sees a landscape or a famous building, often one of cultural or state representation, including the White House, the Reichstag, the Bundeshaus in Bern, the Eiffel Tower, the Tate Modern, and St. Peter‘s Basilica. Ai Weiwei gives each one the finger. In interaction with “Odyssey” and “Life Cycle”, the series can be understood as an accusation or appeal to decision-makers in politics and society to face up to their responsibility.
Circle of Animals, 2011
In front of the curved wall of the last exhibition area, the group of Chinese zodiac signs—rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, and pig—appears once again.
The twelve animal figures made of gilded bronze, as well as the “Zodiac” works, deal with an examination of twelve fountain figures from the “Old Summer Palace” in Beijing. The historical figures adorned a water clock in the so-called “Western” palaces. After British-French troops destroyed the palace in the Second Opium War of 1860, the figures were plundered. Some of them are still lost to this day. Some were acquired in auctions and brought back to China. They have received the status of national Chinese cultural symbols.
Exhibition at K21 – Part II
The second part of the exhibition at the K21 traces an arc from Ai Weiwei’s earliest artistic steps, to his time in New York (1983-1993), and all the way to his imprisonment in 2011 and the subsequent period of surveillance (2011-2015).
The works from the 1980s and the “New York Photographs” associated with them reveal an artist who made the art of his own time productive for his own artistic endeavor, and who at the same time casts an unsparing gaze at the society in which he lives. The works from the 1990s and the “Beijing Photographs” are exemplary of the way in which Ai Weiwei further developed his New York experiences after returning to China. His detention at a secret location for 81 days in 2011 marks the culmination of Ai Weiwei’s open confrontation with the Chinese regime. With “S.A.C.R.E.D.” (2011-2013), the artist both simultaneously documents and works through the traumatic experiences of incarceration.
New York Photographs, 1983-1993
From 1981 to 1993, Ai Weiwei lived in the USA. In 1983, he moved to New York City, where he studied at the Parsons School of Design. He captured his life in the East Village in thousands of photographs. He drew a personal portrait of the city. He shot photos of the places and situations that interested him and the people he surrounded himself with. Here, he presents a selection of photographs from this period under the title “New York Photographs”.
Beijing Photographs, 1993-2003
In 1993, Ai Weiwei returned to China because his father, the poet Ai Qing (1910-1996), had fallen ill. In Beijing, where the artist lived with his family, he also documented his artistic environment and daily life in numerous photographs. In doing so, he took intimate photographs of his family life, images of his father’s illness, pictures of the construction of his studio house in Caochangdi, as well as of his artistic practice, exhibitions, and artist colleagues. In addition to his private surroundings, Ai Weiwei depicted Beijing’s experimental art scene and the rapid transformation of the cityscape.
The six iron boxes reveal limited views onto various scenes of Ai Weiweis time in prison. The titel letters are assigned to the individual scenes in the cells: “S” stands for “supper,” while “A” stands for “accusers” and refers to the interrogations to which Ai Weiwei was exposed several times a day. “C” refers to the “cleansing” of the body in the presence of the guards. “R” stands for the „ritual“ of walking back and forth in the cell. “E” stands for “entropy” and presents the guarded detainee in a state of entropic sleep. Finally, “D” stands for “doubt” and presents the detainee sitting on the toilet under the eyes of the watchful officers. Apart from its obvious meaning of “the holy”, S.A.C.R.E.D. refers to the idea of a “Homo sacer,” who has been expunged from society and deprived of all rights so that his only hopes lie in the benevolence of God. The term is often used to describe a situation of vulnerability and lawlessness in totalitarian systems.