Despite having had his passport confiscated and being forbidden to travel by the Chinese government for four years, until late July this year (when he relocated to Berlin), formerly Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei is still one of the most exhibited artists in the world. Last year alone, he took part in nearly 100 solo and group exhibitions, and he has continued to produce numerous site-specific commissions as well as new works for venues and projects outside of China. Although there was never any official, publicly issued call for the censorship of Ai’s art within China, since 2011, most museums, galleries, curators and fellow artists here have associated his name with trouble with the authorities.
Zhao Zhao, a young artist who was, for many years, an assistant of Ai’s, acted as the curator of a one-day solo exhibition in June at 503 Museum in Beijing – a small space that is actually Zhao’s studio – where Ai presented five 3,000-year-old jade tools from his collection of antiquities. Ai had cut one of them, formerly the blade of an axe, into the shape of an iPhone. In an interview with Zhao, Ai compared himself to a plumber in a building, running around fixing problems but remaining under-appreciated in the eyes of his Chinese colleagues. Despite his deep involvement in initiating artist’s publications, curating exhibitions, directing an art space and writing about fellow artists, especially those from a younger generation, he has nonetheless been marginalized by the Chinese art community as his recognition internationally has increased. Many harbour the idea that he ‘won over the West’ with his political activities and marketing skills rather than through his artistic talent. Ai’s frustration with this dismissal is unmistakable. In what may have been a response to these assumptions, this summer he opened four simultaneous solo exhibitions in five venues across Beijing, which he claimed to be his first solo exhibitions in China in the last two decades.
The most ambitious of the shows, simply titled ‘Ai Weiwei’, occupied two adjacent commercial galleries in the 798 Art District – Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art. Here, Ai reconstructed the 400-year-old Wang Family Ancestral Hall, cutting through the wall between the two galleries so that the entire structure straddled both spaces. Originally from Jiangxi Province and built entirely of wood, the Wang Family Ancestral Hall was one of many exceptional houses built by the wealthy rural families of the Ming Dynasty as a communal gathering space where villagers could pay respect to their ancestors and discuss public affairs. During the Cultural Revolution, three of the four sections of this ingeniously designed structure were destroyed. The remaining central portion was recently placed on the market by antique dealers and, after purchasing it, Ai disassembled it into 1,500 component parts, shipped it to Beijing and had it reassembled in the galleries.
Ai’s project did not primarily set out to recuperate the architectural wonder, lost glory and social and political history of such a construction; it reflected the nuances of bringing this historic readymade into a particular contemporary context. Ai chose two galleries that epitomize distinctly different models in the local art world: Galleria Continua, a European gallery operating in Beijing, and Tang Contemporary Art, funded and run by local Chinese gallerists. With the wall between the neighbouring spaces removed, the audience and security guards in each gallery could observe those in the other via a monitor.
Though each contained one half of the same installation, instead of being mirror images of each other, Ai’s two displays highlighted the galleries’ fundamentally different natures. Both spaces contained almost the same inventory of items, yet the display at Tang appeared much coarser than that at its Italian counterpart, effectively contesting the popular and deep-seated nationalist sentiment that a Chinese model is as good as a Western one. Where an original unlit dragon lamp sat on a table and several rows of unrepaired lanterns rested on the ground at Tang Contemporary, Ai installed a seven-tiered crystal chandelier that fully lit the interior of the hall in Galleria Continua. And, while Tang’s display still had metal scaffolding left behind from the installation, Ai leaned a framed mirror with a smear of bright colour on it against one wall of Galleria Continua and a painted ladder against another. Under one of the pillars in the structure in Galleria Continua lay a note written by Ai’s six-year-old son: ‘Nothing compares to peace of mind.’
Compared with this tour de force, Ai’s concurrent shows at Magician Space and Chambers Fine Art in Beijing were more focused on presenting a selection of the artist’s most recent works, providing welcome footnotes to his fascination with re-discovering and re-appropriating traditional aesthetics in a contemporary context. With so much of Ai’s work on view simultaneously, it was clear that he is not only one of the country’s most prolific artists, but one who has a sophisticated command of exhibition-making.