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Ai Wei Wei

According to What

Mori Art Museum

53F Roppongi Hills Mori Tower

Tokyo, Japan

25 July – 8 November 2009

The notions of spectacle and stimulation are never far from the surface in a city like Tokyo. A literal megalopolis that sprawls out endlessly, its sheer scale, magnitude, bright lights and omnipresent city grime renders the individual almost lost and forgotten – enveloped by a city purely because it functions. This was the view from the observation deck that shared the same building as the Mori Art Museum. Unlike our antipodium public museum spaces, which are often housed in self-contained buildings, the Mori Art Museum is located on the fiftieth and fifty-first floors of the Mori tower which is part of the larger Roppongi Hills complex. As you enter the museum you are taken up an escalator with a gleaming chandelier hanging above you illuminating the foyer – pure spectacle in itself. In this regard, Ai Wei Wei’s exhibition According to What? with its combination of large scale interdisciplinary works and smaller sculptural objects inhabited the voluminous spaces of the Mori Art Museum with an overall sense of coherence and purpose.

It is easy to view Ai as the agent provocateur of mainland Chinese art perhaps due to his other life as a dedicated political activist – situating his oeuvre on a plane that acts purely as a political affront or subversive statement against the policies of the Chinese government. Certainly some of his work has a political edge by virtue of it commenting on and critiquing these social policies, however to position his work as inherently political may be overly one-dimensional and simplistic. Ai’s works are as much about the process of exploring of history, form as well as the exploration of the self within a rapidly shifting social context.

The exhibition was divided into three main sections: “Fundamental Forms and Volumes,” “Structure and Craftsmanship” and “Reforming and Inheriting Tradition”. In the first space, the viewer is exposed to several works which examine the use of traditional everyday materials appropriated to create modernist geometric forms. In works such as Ton of Tea 2006, oolong tea is compacted together to form a perfectly shaped cubic metre block. It stood quietly in the middle of the space – static and aesthetically resolved acting as an exploration of space and form. The use of organic materials such as Huali wood in Cubic Metre Tables 2006 and tea provided the works with a textural quality that reminded the viewer of the process driven nature of Ai’s work.

At the rear of the first gallery space, Teahouse 2009 filled an entire sectioned off void. Solid blocks of compacted tea fashioned into brick-like shapes are stacked on top of each other to form a small house that sat on a bed of loose tea leaves. The loose tea appeared to spew out of the house, completely colonising the space, reaching out to the viewer as a gesture of connection between the interior space and the external unknown. Consequently the volume of the house metaphorically expands pasts its rigid shape and is emptied out of its intended use value, signifying the relationship of this ingredient to the customs of social interaction and everyday life.

The notions of everyday life and societal transformations are always embedded into Ai’s work. In a separate space the work Provisional Landscapes 2002-2008 was created using a large series of photographs that wrapped around all four walls, enveloping the viewer’s field of vision due to the sheer scale of imagery. Individual shots displayed a myriad of urban landscapes in China, some documenting the concrete rubble after a demolition, some the gigantic equipment used to create new apartment buildings, some the finished result – a series of gleaming towers amidst a sea of rubble. A visual timeline of China’s rapid urbanisation at all costs, this work displayed the before and after in all its glory. There were other works in the exhibition that critiqued China’s commercialisation such as Forever Bicycles 2003 and Coca Cola Vase 1997, where a fourteen hundred year old vase from the Tang dynasty has been emblazoned with the Coca Cola logo. However, the imagery in Provisional Landscapes is tinged with a sense of the unknowing and sadness, foregrounding the multiple layers of society that drastic urban change touches – it is an arresting and profound work.

There were works that struggled to articulate the complex layers that are embedded into the experiences of life in China such as Snake Ceiling 2008 – which was a serpent like form that was suspended up high above you on the ceiling. Made out of brightly coloured backpacks that were connected together, the bags acted as the building blocks of the serpent’s languid body – its form referencing the use of serpent imagery as a symbolic representation of evil and taker of life in Chinese mythology. This collection of backpacks was also a visual reference to the number of people that perished in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, in this case appearing literally to be swallowed up by the snake. However the work felt ill conceived and unconsidered, lacking the restraint and subtlety needed to engage with such an issue, sitting awkwardly in the space that it was hung in.  Disrupting the conceptual flow of the exhibition it appeared almost as an artistic contrivance – the act of remembrance and commemoration faded into the background, as the statement and the visual were embraced.

Whilst some of the large-scale sculptural works and the video work Chang An Boulevard 2008 had a discursive quality that sat uncomfortably aside the more conceptually coherent works, as an exploration into Ai’s oeuvre, this exhibition successfully provided the viewer with insights into the social and cultural contexts from which his works are created. Ai’s works are always bound to an experience, to a time and a place in history and the reconfiguring of established art histories. In a city like Tokyo where efficiency and hyper-modernity are intertwined with the historical, this exhibition felt entirely at home.

Copyright Leon Goh 2010