When the 54th Venice Biennale opened in June 2011, Ai Weiwei had been under arrest in China for two months, his absence as powerful a presence in the art world as his work. Museums and galleries rallied; petitions were signed, posters hung and badges worn. Banners questioning Ai’s whereabouts or calling for his release hung from the galleries that represented him; his Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads sculpture was on show in London and New York, the Sunflower Seeds had only recently gone from the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. In Venice, Ai was largely absent; he had no work at the Biennale and was scarcely mentioned in any official capacity.
Guiseppe Stampone, Bye Bye Ai Weiwei, outside Zuecca Project Space, 2011
Somewhat confusingly (and, some argued, insultingly), his absence was acknowledged as part of a collateral exhibition by a large sign which read, in four foot tall illuminated letters, ‘Bye bye Ai Weiwei’ positioned prominently on the waterfront on Giudecca island, an, at best, ill-judged work by artist Giuseppe Stampone. Cut forward two years and, though still not allowed to leave China, Ai’s presence was rather more apparent at the 2013 biennale. And this time we got to see his work, some of it in the very building that sign stood outside two years ago, the Zuecca Project Space.
The work here – half of a two site exhibition called Disposition and one of no fewer than three installations by Ai in Venice for the 2013 Biennale – references the major earthquake in Sichuan Province in China in 2008 and the collapse of poorly built schools which resulted in the deaths of over 5,000 children (also the subject of Ai’s 2009 installation Remembering which I have written about here already).
For the installation Straight, first shown at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC in 2012 as part of the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Acording to What?, Ai bought about 100 tons of the mangled steel rebar (the steel rods used in construction to reinforced concrete) that had failed to prevent the collapse of the school buildings they were once part of and, with his studio, painstakingly straightened them out so they could be arranged on the gallery floor as a kind of rusty landscape. The straightness of the rods imposes an order of sorts, but this is mountainous terrain and there are seams running through the work like geological fault lines.
In a side space, video of the aftermath of the earthquake shows that the concrete was poorly reinforced: many of the steel rods were too short for the job they were meant to perform meaning that as the earthquake struck they were pulled from the concrete rather than holding it together. This film documents Ai’s investigation of the failure of the buildings and explains the issues with the poorly reinforced concrete that simply wasn’t up to the job required of it. The installation itself is extraordinary even without understanding the meaning behind it; the video adds to that, allowing us to fully appreciate the nature of the material we are looking at and the powerful significance of the work. Spending time in the space I find myself awed by the sheer physicality of the steel rebar and fascinated by the fractured landscape Ai has created from it. Most of all though, this is a work that demands quiet contemplation. The earthquake was, of course, a terrible natural disaster which would have resulted in huge loss of life regardless but Straight is a reminder that for the children of Sichuan Province, in poorly constructed school buildings, the event took a greater toll than might otherwise have been the case.
Of all the work I saw last year – and in case of any doubt, that would be a lot; I may not have been writing much but I have been looking – this was probably the piece that will stay with me most vividly. It’s a deeply moving work, both for the story it tells of the very real consequences of corruption and shoddy building practices and for the other narrative, the tale of the artist who wouldn’t let go. Straight is a powerful reminder of Ai’s determination to hold the authorities to account and to get the children’s story out into the world.