A huge amount has been written about Ai Weiwei since he was arrested last month at Beijing Airport for unspecified “economic crimes”. So the first retrospective in the UK of his work, at London’s Lisson Gallery, comes at a poignant time, with the ongoing detention of the Chinese artist and social critic.
I became aware of Ai’s worsening predicament last year. Walking around his studio complex in the north-east of Beijing one overcast April morning, I noticed two surveillance cameras attached to utility poles outside the front gate. Plain-clothes police officers also patrolled the street. Later I learned that the cameras had been installed in 2009 by the Chinese authorities, to observe the traffic going in and out, despite Ai’s compulsion to broadcast the minutiae of his life via Twitter and his blog.
On display at the Lisson is a replica of these cameras, but carved out of a single block of white marble. The work, entitled “Surveillance Camera”, is a commentary on the Big Brother state in which Ai lives. It is pointed out of the gallery’s vast window, seemingly recording the Lisson’s own CCTV camera outside, or perhaps the schoolchildren in the playground across the road. In the light of his detention, the sculpture acquires an added depth. Ai had complained about the ubiquitous police surveillance in China just two days before he vanished.
The Lisson is also showing “Coloured Vases” (2009). The installation is made up of 6,000-year-old Han Dynasty vessels, which he has dipped in bright, sometimes garishly coloured industrial paint. These red, yellow and purple vases are one of the show’s highlights.
Ai has creatively vandalised ancient vases before. One of his most famous and controversial pieces is the performance “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995), which is remembered in a photo-triptych. The black-and-white pictures show Ai dropping an ancient ceramic vase, which shatters on the floor at his feet. And in another work he made in 1994, Ai stamps the Coca-Cola logo across an ancient vase’s exterior.
Unfortunately, these are not on display. Indeed, one would never guess that Ai is widely touted as the world’s most daring contemporary artist. The Lisson has instead chosen to exhibit less confrontational, more contemplative works, ranging from video installations to sculptures.
We see a bent coffin and benches made from salvaged wood from temples set for demolition, and four wooden chests with round holes in them so it seems like you are watching different phases of the moon.
These sculptures are beautiful and skillfully crafted, but they pale in comparison to Ai’s most important works. Consider the photograph from 2009, where Ai stands in Tiananmen Square, the site of the Chinese government’s crushing opf the student-led democracy movement in 1989, with his shirt open, displaying an upper-case “FUCK” printed on his chest. Or consider his memorial to the 5,000 pupils crushed to death in shoddily built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which spelled out in children’s rucksacks the words of a grieving mother: “She lived happily on this earth for seven years”.
Although this retrospective is a good introduction to Ai’s work – and the best we are likely to see in London in the near future — it feels like an opportunity has been missed. Ai is not the only absentee from his London show. His most politically daring works are missing, too.
For a better sense of Ai’s activism and meditations on architecture, Chinese culture and art, one can read the collection of blog posts anthologised in Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. We read about how he helped design the Birds Nest stadium but then called for an Olympic boycott; and we learn of his concern for workers’ rights, when he writes that 40,000 workers in southern China lose fingers in machinery accidents each year because of poor safety standards.
Ai was born in 1957. Like many of his generation who were raised during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, he received little formal education. Until he started blogging in 2006, Ai had very little writing experience and barely knew how to type, making this book even more astonishing.
“Ai Weiwei” runs at the Lisson Gallery, London NW1 until 16 July