VIENNA. „Everything is art. Everything is politics”, says Ai Weiwei (born in 1957), one of the world’s most influential contemporary artists. As a conceptual artist, a documentary filmmaker, and an activist, his works exert criticism not only on the regime of his native China, but respond as well to the political reality of Europe’s current refugee crisis, recalls 21er Haus – Museum of Contemporary Art Quartier Belvedere.
A common thread that runs through both his life and work concerns the themes of expulsion, migration, and deliberate change of location as a transformative catalyst for humans and objects alike.
„This is the first time Ai Weiwei’s work will be shown in such a comprehensive exhibition within Austria. Entitled translocation – transformation, the show was conceived through a collaboration with the artist and will extend far beyond the scope of a mere solo exhibition. Not only does it feature aspects of Ai Weiwei’s life, the show also addresses current social issues, which affect us all”, explains Agnes Husslein-Arco, the Director of the Belvedere and the 21 er Haus.
Central to the exhibition AI WEIWEI. translocation – transformation (14 July to 20 November 2016) in Belvedere Museum is a tea merchant family’s ancestral temple from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) – Wang Family Ancestral Hall (2015), whose main hall is accurately reconstructed in the 21er Haus. The 14-meter tall wooden temple consists of over 1,300 individual pieces and is presented for the first time outside of China. Removed from its original function, this process of translocation endows it with new meaning. Similarly, the 21er Haus was originally constructed on a different location, and for a different purpose. Intended as a temporary pavilion for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels, the temple’s placement here provides the grounds upon which the two spaces can engage in a stimulating, multi-layered dialogue.
Two other works at the 21er Haus address the theme of transformation at the same time as they refer to China’s tea culture, thereby invoking the original proprietor of the ancestral hall. The Teahouse (2009) is made from pressed Pu-Erh-Tea. Spouts (2015) is an assembly of approximately 2.5 tons of porcelain antique teapot spouts, which are spread like a carpet over the floor of the exhibition space, announced 21erhaus.at.
Furthermore, Ai Weiwei addresses the current refugee crisis with the work F Lotus (2015), an installation composed of 1,005 worn life jackets. Arranged in the shape of the letter F, each one of the 201 rings is comprised of five individual jackets, which float like lotus blossoms on the waters of the baroque ponds at the park of the Upper Belvedere.
The exhibition curated by Alfred Weidinger, stretches out into the baroque Belvedere gardens, where one can also find Weiwei’s work, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) – an ensemble of bronze heads from the Chinese zodiac. Each individual sculpture is comprised of a three-meter pole and an animal head weighing in at approximately 500 kilograms.
The works of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei express his critical approach to the history, culture, and politics of his country and subtly reflect his own life story. Complex intersections of past and present heighten the fascination of the installation Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads that he install by the large water basin on the south side of the Belvedere. In these twelve bronze heads from the Chinese zodiac the artist addresses the ransacking of the fountain at the summer palace Yuanming Yuan in Beijing by French and British troops in 1860. Built in 1709, this imperial retreat pre-dated Prince Eugene’s (1663-1736) garden palace by only a few years. Marking the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860), this wanton act of destruction and pillaging was a bitter humiliation for the people of China.
In 2009 two of the looted animal heads (the original sculptures were of the whole body) from the Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) private collection came up for sale at auction. The publicity this attracted led to a further five animal heads coming to light; the rest are still missing. All of the Chinese government’s efforts to repatriate the bronzes have failed. Ai Weiwei responded by recreating the series in bronzes that are not exact replicas but an artistic interpretation and as such, both physically and conceptually, are a product of the twenty-first century. The artist deliberately placed the heads, which were literally decapitated by the looters, onto posts and will place them around the Upper Belvedere’s main water feature as a prelude to the exhibition at the 21er Haus. More – page 2