Straight talking

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2012 (installed at Zuecca Project Space, Venice, 2013)

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 Sampone Zuecca Project Space 2011 crop

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.

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Nerves of steel

Richard Serra, Fernando Pessoa, 2007

Richard Serra’s sculptures scare me. Well, sort of. When I stop to think about the weight of steel and the way they just stand there minding their own business but capable of crushing anything in their path should they choose to fall, then they scare me. Mostly I just kind of marvel at the scale of them and at the quiet way they hold their immense power in check.

Though I really liked everything in Serra’s exhibition at Gagosian in London in 2008, ultimately for me it was all about two works. The first of these, Fernando Pessoa, is a simple wall of steel. It just stands there, unsupported. The wall is ten inches thick, any less and it would be at risk of toppling over. As it is, it just looks like it could fall. It’s an extraordinary presence in the space, bisecting the room but becoming almost nothing when seen end on.

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