Ai Weiwei, Bang, 2013 (installation in the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale)
The first thing that confused me about the German Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale was that it was in France. Well, not France the actual country, but in France’s pavilion: the two countries swapped buildings for the 55th Venice Biennale as a cultural exchange. Walking into the building the first work on show – in a large central space that generally dictates the tone of anything shown there – was Bang, an installation made of an exploding forest of wooden three-legged stools by the not even a bit German artist (and subject of my last couple of posts) Ai Weiwei. What did it all mean?
Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013 (installation view, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, Venice as part of Disposition organised by Zuecca Projects and the Lisson Gallery)
Walking into a church in Venice and finding six large black crate-like boxes would be a fairly odd regardless but add couple of dozen other art lovers into the equation, wandering around the space and climbing on little black boxes to peer intently into the crates is a distinctly strange and somewhat unsettling experience. Like most churches in Venice, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, a fourth century building extensively reworked in the Baroque style in the mid seventeenth century, has a rather ornate interior. The austere black boxes that dominate the floor of the space are an incongruous sight; once one gets beyond the immediate visual confusion, the context raises some interesting questions.
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.
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.
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?
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.