Ai Weiwei in Munich, Germany

Ai Weiwei's show 'So Sorry' in Munich's Haus der Kunst museum is the best one-man show I saw this year: He confirms his reputation as one of the most exciting artists of the world - even after the hype about contemporary art from China

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.   I am impressed how easily he switches between almost all forms of art:  
  • Visual arts
  • Architecture
  • Design
  • Performance art
  • or even political activism


Mr. Weiwei says about himself that he is just a person who does different things: Sometimes it ends up being art, sometimes architecture. 'After I finish working on the architecture that I have already committed to, I won't accept a single additional project.' This unique architectural project was Beijing's 2008 Olympic National Stadium (in a cooperation with the architects Herzog & de Meuron).

Ai Weiwei: 'Remembering', Installation of backpacks for the facade of the Haus der Kunst, Munich 2009 (c) photo by Premier Art Scene

Yet, Ai Weiwei is far from being an 'official state artist'. He is a very critical mind and a leading Chinese civil rights activist.


When you approach Munich's Haus der Kunst, you see the gigantic installation 'Remembering' which covers almost the entire front of the museum. It depicts a sentence written in Mandarin characters saying 'She lived happily for seven years in this world.' Coming closer you realize the whole installation is made up of 9,000 colorful school backpacks.


The sentence is a quotation by the mother of one of the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008. In this earthquake, there were many school kids among the dead. It was evident that the school buildings were not built earthquake proof - most likely because of mismanagement of the local authorities.


'The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake. During the earthquake, many schools collapsed. Thousands of students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes.  The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.' If you want, each of the 9,000 school backpacks on the front of the museum represents the lost live of a kid.


Ai Weiwei: 'Remembering' partial view of installation at the Haus der Kunst museum, 2009 (c) photo by Premier Art Scene

Sichuan police took Ai Weiwei and Chinese rock star Zuoxiao Zuzhou in custody in the middle of the night in August 2009. (He could take a picture with his mobile phone when taken away.) They were there to find out about the responsible for the high death toll of the earthquake. During the interrogation, they were threatened and hurt. Mr. Weiwei even had to undergo surgery in Munich afterwards.


He says, 'We mourn only because death is a part of life, because those dead from the quake are a part of us. However, the dead are gone. Only when the living go on living with dignity can the departed rest with dignity.'


Ai Weiwei has carefully chosen the Haus der Kunst for his retrospective also because of the museum's history: It was built in 1937 by the fascist Nazi regime. It was opened with the anti-modernist propaganda show 'Entartete Kunst' (degenerate art).


It is fascinating, how Mr. Weiwei reacts to this history by his means of art: In the huge center hall there is 'Soft Ground'. It is a large-scale rug (380 square meters) he commissioned to a Beijing rug factory: The 969 stone tiles of the hall were identically copied for this rug. Including the natural differences of the stone tiles and the man made traces of the museum's changing history. He hides the real ground of the museum with a comfortably soft and sound-absorbing copy of the original ground. Ingenious!


'The work is like a map pointing to the events and people who have been occupying the floor of the Haus der Kunst from 1937 to today:'


Ai Weiwei: partial view of 'Soft Ground' rug installation, 2009; 'Rooted Upon' wood 2009 (c) photo by Premier Art Scene


On this rug, he places the installation 'Rooted upon', 102 found pieces of huge tree roots.


Ai Weiwei: 'Fairytale' 2007, partial installation (c) photo by Premier Art Scene

Portrait photographs of the 1001 Chinese visitors to the Documenta XII cover all the high walls. For this performance 'Fairytale', he invited 1001 Chinese visitors to this exhibition to Kassel, Germany. A film and part of the bedroom furniture installation of this project are also in the Munich show.


Marcel Duchamp's concept of the 'readymade' is obviously the most important Western influence on Ai Weiwei's work. I admire how he uses readymade to loot from Chinese art and design history in order to prompt new questions about today's issues.



For instants, he takes historic chairs from the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) and transforms them in a sculpture.


Ai Weiwei: 'Grapes', 2008, stools from the Qing Dynasty (c) photo by Premier Art Scene


Alternatively, for his colored vase series, he takes Neolithic vases (5000 - 3000 B.C.) and paints them careless with bright industrial colors. Then he places them in an Allan McCollum style.


Ai Weiwei: 'Colored Vases', 2008, Neollithic vases and industrial paint (c) photo by Premier Art Scene


He successfully questions (art) history and our perception of art history by transforming the historic work of art.


In his 'Dust to dust' series he first breaks and then grinds Neolithic pottery (5000 - 3000 B.C.) to dust and fills this dust in standard IKEA glass jars.


Do not get confused by the show's title 'So Sorry': He does not feel sorry for the historic pottery. He says, 'The title refers to the thousands of apologies expressed recently by governments, industries, and financial corporations worldwide in an effort to make up for the tragedies and wrongdoings - though often without shouldering the consequences or the desire to acknowledge let alone repair.  Saying sorry - or not saying it - is in the headlines everywhere and thus also in China.'


I like Ai Weiwei's idea about liberty: 'Liberty is about our rights to question everything.'


I appeal to you all to bookmark this article to your social networks - this artist needs all the publicity he can get!


by U.G.



Ai Weiwei: 'So Sorry' Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany

trough 17 January 2010


(c) Franz West: 'Lying Knot', 2008, sculpture, courtesy by Gagosian gallery and MCH
Lisa Yuskavage: 'Piggyback Ride', 2009, oil on canvas, 152 x 127 cm / 60 x 50'', courtesy of Greengrassi Gallery, London (c) photo by Premier Art Scene


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