Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009
It’s possible for text to become meaningless shapes when we’re too close to it, especially if it’s written in an unfamiliar script. At first glance, maybe even to those who read Mandarin, the colourful wall of the Haus der Kunst Museum in Munich which faced visitors to Ai Weiwei’s 2009 exhibition So Sorry, might have seemed more like a cheerful pattern rather than the poignant words of a grieving mother. The colour palette of red, yellow, green and blue is more redolent of children’s books than works of art and certainly doesn’t immediately suggest a memorial. Look closer and it’s clear that the building blocks of the banner are brightly coloured backpacks, the sort that children often use as school bags. But this is a work that needs an explanation.
Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, Serpentine Pavilion, 2012
Not that you’d know it to look out of the window, but it’s summer. And, amongst other things, summer means a new Serpentine Pavilion. In a fit of optimism, this year’s pavilion is open sided so it’s likely that for much of the summer those venturing to see it will find themselves staying close to the middle to avoid the driving rain and quite possibly huddling together for warmth. Ah well…
So, disregarding the disparity between building and climate, is it good architecture? Does it work as a social space? Is that even what it’s for?
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
To a greater or lesser extent, the destruction of the past is an on-going, universal project. Whether it’s demolishing old buildings to make space for new ones or cutting down woodland to accommodate agriculture on an industrial scale, we can’t ever really let things be. If we never destroyed anything, the world would be an even more weird, uncomfortable and overcrowded place but nonetheless there’s often more to our reluctance to let things go than simple nostalgia. In the last half century or thereabouts, China has witnessed wholesale destruction of its history in the name of both ideology – the Cultural Revolution – and, more recently, progress, as the past is razed to make room for the future. Nonetheless, Ai Weiwei’s destruction of ancient ceramics in the name of art might seem in some respects excessive. It certainly has the power to shock though perhaps one of the most surprising aspects is that the value of what one might assume to be priceless ancient artefacts such as a Neolithic urn dating from 5000-3000BC can be increased by the addition of a Coca-Cola logo.