21er Haus, Vienna, Austria
21er Haus, Vienna, Austria
It has been just over a year since Ai Weiwei was released from his four-year house arrest in China, allowing him to move to Berlin and begin a long-awaited professorship at the Universität der Künste. Since then, he has opened a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, to produce work in response to the ongoing refugee crisis, and has mounted countless solo exhibitions. His latest, ‘Ai Weiwei. translocation – transformation’ at Vienna’s Belvedere, comprises only six works, but all are monumental, multipart pieces stretching across a section of the Upper Belvedere, its gardens and the ground floor of the 21er Haus a few hundred metres away. It’s a parcourse of works espousing the exhibition’s titular concepts: when people and objects move from one place to another, they must adjust and change.
This year, I’ve become an outspoken critic of Ai’s work on social media, particularly for the way he has blithely instrumentalized the refugee crisis in gimmicky, knee-jerk responses. So, I went into this exhibition expecting the worst. But, as a blockbuster museum show, its somewhat unconventional presentation of a few key, spectacular pieces is effective. And it manages to avoid the overkill of his ‘Evidence’ exhibition in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2014. Dominating the 21er Haus’s main space is Wang Family Ancestral Hall (2015), a massive readymade of a Ming-dynasty structure that once belonged to a family of tea merchants who were forced to abandon it during the Cultural Revolution. Its dimensions and wood-carved details are breath-taking. Two other works reference the tea trade: Spouts (2015) is a ‘carpet’ of 2.5 tonnes of antique porcelain teapot spouts; Teahouse (2009) depicts two stylized houses made of compacted Pu-erh tea on a bed of loose tea leaves. The pieces connect past and present, East and West, and to the building itself, which is also a ‘transplant’, having originally been a pavilion for the Brussels World Fair in 1958, moved to Vienna in 1962, and refashioned as a contemporary art venue in 2011.
At the Upper Belvedere, a group of ephemeral and mythical paper creatures suspended in the atrium overlook the gardens and pond outside, where the show’s most provocative works attract selfie stick-wielding tourists. Around the pond’s perimeter is Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2011), in which Ai has reinterpreted the 12 human and animal heads that once stood around the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing and were plundered in the late 1800s by the French and British (five of the original sculptures remain missing). Each of the 500-kilogramme heads perches on a three-metre pole as if impaled; those representing the stolen five are clustered near the palace – perhaps a commentary on colonial looting and cultural appropriation.
Floating on the pond was the piece about which I was initially most sceptical. F Lotus (2016) comprises 1,005 life jackets discarded by refugees who landed on Lesbos (the island’s mayor donated the jackets to Ai). Ai’s refugee-related work has often been tone-deaf and self-centred, most notably the photographic self-portrait in which he posed as the drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi on a Turkish shore, or the occasion when he wrapped celebrities in emergency blankets at a Berlin benefit dinner (both 2016). But F Lotus is a more considered commentary: one with a message beyond celebrity ‘solidarity’ or Instagram selfies with refugee barbers. Here, 201 rings, each comprising five life jackets in blue, red or orange, form lotus flowers symbolizing rebirth and transcendence – perhaps hopelessly optimistic sentiments in a country whose right-wing faction wants to cut refugee support and where refugees still wait months for asylum: a translocation with transformation indefinitely delayed. But, together, the lifejackets form the calligraphic letter ‘f’, which, in a twist on the kitschy lotus, is meant to play on the f-word in English and, in Mandarin, alludes to a phrase meaning, ‘F*** your mother.’ As the horrific causes of the world’s most recent mass migration continue, Ai has at last given us a piece that is provocative while it evokes contemplation.
Main image: Ai Weiwei, F Lotus, 2016, 1005 life vests, PVC, polyethylene foam. Courtesy: © Ai Weiwei Studio; photograph: © Belvedere, Vienna