Translocation – Transformation
AI WEIWEI’S WORK IS AN EXPRESSION OF HIS CRITICAL DEALINGS WITH THE HISTORY, CULTURE AND POLITICS OF HIS HOME COUNTRY, AND IS REFLECTED IN HIS OWN BIOGRAPHY IN A MORE OR LESS SUBTLE WAY.
The multi-layered combination of history and the present increase the fascination that emanates from the monumental Installation Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, which the artist has set up at the large water reservoir on the southern side of the Belvedere. With the twelve bronze heads that represent the zodiac signs of the Chinese horoscope, the artist reacts to the destruction of a water-clock fountain built around 1749 in front of the Palace of the Calm Sea in Yuanmingyuan, the imperial summer retreat in Beijing, by French and British troops in 1860. The act of wanton destruction and looting signified a deep humiliation for the Chinese people, and marked the end of the Second Opium War, the import of opium forced by military might in order to assert colonial economic interests. Between 2000 and 2007 China was able to acquire five of the stolen animal heads (originally the bodies were also formed). In 2009 two more animals (the rabbit and rat) from the Yves Saint Laurent collection were offered by auction. All efforts by the Chinese government to bring both bronze figures back to China failed. Eventually the French art patron François-Henri Pinault donated both these bronze heads to China in 2013. The five remaining heads are still missing to this day. Ai Weiwei reacted to culturalpolitical events with a new creation of the series. The bronze figures are not perfect copies, rather an artistic interpretation and thus not only physically, but also conceptually a product of the 21st century.
All is Art – all is Policy
Just as the Second Opium War that was provoked 160 years ago prepared the end of the Chinese empire, so the Chinese Land Reform and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, initiated by Mao Zedong in 1966 and ended in 1976 following his death, signified another momentous cultural shift. In order to decisively move towards ideal socialism, the whole of Society and the Party were to be renewed in proletarian terms. The millennia-old Chinese culture based on the teachings of Laozi, Buddha and Confucius and others was virtually wiped out by political force. The draconian measures were aimed at Basic traditional values and led to deracination, expulsion, the destruction of family traditions, the elimination of property, and in the worst case to Annihilation.
Expulsion, migration and a chosen Change in one’s location as triggers of transformative processes in people and objects is a recurrent theme running through Ai Weiwei’s life and work. This is true for his youth as much as for his time as an Artist in the USA, for the phase after his return to China, and for his migration to Berlin. For every translocation carried out, a process of relocation follows. This goes hand-inhand with inner migration and the Change of identity. Despite or precisely because of his nomadic existence, Ai Weiwei is a social being, a zoon politikon, and as such cannot be thought of abstractly separated from his fellow-beings, from society, Tradition
Thus it came naturally to Ai Weiwei to react to the refugee crisis with a completely new work. For this, the artist had 201 rings made, each from five life-jackets, into lotus blossoms, and installed them in the Pond on the southern side of the Belvedere in the form of a calligraphic F. The refugees’ life-jackets point to the uncertain fate of people in need; the lotus blossom symbolizes purity and longevity in China; and the F is a recurrent motif in Ai Weiwei’s work, to be understood as provocative.
Ai Weiwei’s interest in the history of the 21er Haus should be seen in the context of his permanent engagement with transformative processes. Originally built as an impermanent national pavilion for the Brussels World Fair of 1958, it was initially to be scrapped; however, it was then relocated to Vienna and adapted as a museum for contemporary art. The parallels to the history of an ancestral hall from the Ming Dynasty were decisive in Ai Weiwei’s selection of the main work for the exhibition in the 21er Haus. During the Ming Dynasty, the hall had an important function to fulfil within the family. In the present case it concerns the ancestral spirits’ house of the first settlers of a village in the southern province of Jiangxi. The Wang family was among the most important tea merchants in the region and maintained their ancestors’ house until the Chinese Land Reform. The family was banished, and so the ancestral hall lost its function. Over the decades the once so powerful and important building turned into a ruin threatened by collapse.
Ai Weiwei acquired the hall, which in the meanwhile had been removed, dislocated it once again, and by putting it on display, conferred upon it a new cultural task. There can hardly be a better example to underline the consequences of the ever-present Chinese Cultural Revolution, decades after Mao’s death.