"Once you've tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a whole country."
‘Evidence’ is the largest Ai Weiwei show so far. There has been quite some criticism that Ai Weiwei, the most famous Chinese artist, is repeating himself all too much in his recent shows.
Just like in the last Venice Biennale, there are loads of used Chinese stools, but in Berlin he formed a huge square at the central hall of the Martin Gropius museum building. In general, I don’t agree to this criticism.
Ai Weiwei keeps on focusing on ‚his‘ issues:
- The individual versus the collective.
- The traditional versus the new.
- Civil rights in China.
- His own detention in China.
Consistently, he blends form vocabulary of Western minimal art with traditional Chinese craftmanship to create his universal messages of freedom and individuality.
After the collapse of many school buildings in the Sichuan earth quake in 2008, Ai Weiwei and his team found out that there was mismanagement by local authorities as they failed build the schools earth quake proof. He started a media campaign about it. They also took the bent steel support rods from these buildings and created copies in pristine white marble. In Berlin you can see them as beautiful abstract sculptures on classic pedestals and shiver later, when you read their story.
Considering the speed of social and economic change in China, I think it is very responsible of a Chinese artist to address these issues in his work. He could as well produce decorative pieces to serve the demand of the new superrich or the ruling political class. Instead, Ai Weiwei chose to be the inconvenient political artist.
There are also Chinese voices, who say basically that Ai Weiwei serves the Western prejudices about China and gives them a popular face. I don’t think this is true, but I have to admit I don’t know much about the situation in China today first-hand. However, facts like the Tiannanmen square massacre cannot be denied.
When Ai Weiwei was taken into custody in 2011 for alleged tax evasion, he issued debt obligations to people who supported him financially. These debt obligations are now hung as wallpaper on the museum walls of the show.
There is also a life-size model of his prison, where he was kept. It is oppressive to walk in there and get an idea of life as a political prisoner. However, I don’t think this is really his greatest work of art, but it may be his way of keeping his detention in public mind and – hopefully – saving him from another time in prison.
Ai Weiwei’ s favourit piece in the show is, according to an interview before the opening, the fact that he is not allowed to travel to Berlin and to attend the opening. ‘This is a work of art in itself and it reflects my human condition now.’
Ai Weiwei ‘Evidence’ at the Martin Gropius Museum in Berlin
Through 13 July 2014
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