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Ai Weiwei At The Lisson Gallery

Catherine May speaks her mind about Ai Weiwei at The Lisson Gallery

Published on June 23rd 2011.


Ai Weiwei At The Lisson Gallery

A visit to an artist’s exhibition should be all about the art, right?

Not in the case of the Lisson Gallery’s current display of Ai Weiwei’s work. Having been detained on 3 April for ‘economic crimes’ in his native Beijing and only released on bail in late June amidst much controversy and confusion, it’s hard to look past the person behind the art.

Whilst in the building, visitors are encouraged to share their response to Ai Weiwei’s art and arrest with a Twitter feed allowing them to say what they want. Also emphasising Weiwei’s place as a figure of free speech are the free posters available to guests with quotes from the artist.

With nearby graffiti on Bell Street still demanding his release, a walk around the gallery is particularly sombre.

The Lisson Gallery spreads across two buildings. At 52 – 54 Bell Street, a range of Ai Weiwei’s woodwork can be seen. Upstairs sits two hexahedrons of Huali wood. Next to them is ‘Divina Proportione’, a 2010 piece of the same shape but with hollowed out hexagons making up the most of the frame.

A large coffin sits in the Front Gallery of the ground floor. Far from being an average coffin, this piece has been constructed from iron wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty. Not only that, but another distinguishing feature of ‘Coffin’ is its irregular shape. Halfway along the coffin, the hollow wooden box takes a new direction. The obtuse angle of the coffin is matched with two benches of similar shapes.

Ai Weiwei, Marble Chair, 2008, Courtesy The Artist And Lisson GalleryAi Weiwei, Marble Chair, 2008, Courtesy The Artist And Lisson Gallery

‘Moon Chest’ features several large wooden structures with hollowed circles which purposely don’t line up to create a sense of things not being as they seem. With a spiralled effect in the lower holes, it could almost be suggesting the world is closing in – not everything is as it seems.

Whilst in the building, visitors are encouraged to share their response to Ai Weiwei’s art and arrest with a Twitter feed allowing them to say what they want. Also emphasising Weiwei’s place as a figure of free speech are the free posters available to guests with quotes from the artist.

Ai Weiwei, Moon Chest 2008, Hard Wood Huali Wood - Courtesy The Artist And Lisson GalleryAi Weiwei, Moon Chest 2008, Hard Wood Huali Wood - Courtesy The Artist And Lisson Gallery

 

A walk across the street to 29 Bell Street sees visitors pass a school. Screams of excitement, happiness and freedom can be heard behind the gated area in which they’re kept inside. It’s a touching reminder of the artist who has recently lacked all these qualities.

Upon entering the Front Gallery, visitors are greeted with two large marble chairs. Sat ominously empty, the 2008 piece evokes feelings of solitude.

Ai Weiwei, Untitled 2010 Huali Wood Diam. 70 Cm Each -- Courtesy The Artist And Lisson GalleryAi Weiwei, Untitled 2010 Huali Wood Diam. 70 Cm Each -- Courtesy The Artist And Lisson Gallery

A stark contrast to the white walls of the Main Gallery, 38 coloured vases fill the room. With 31 vases of varying shapes sitting on the floor, the injection of colour and life into the room changes the atmosphere.

Seven larger Han Dynasty vases sit on a wooden table in the same room. They differ from the floor’s vases in shape but also in the way they’ve been painted. Whilst the bigger collection of vases show the paint drip and splattering of colour inside, the ones displayed on the table are neatly organised and feature no drips. The bright colours of joy seem restricted, as though they’re not being given the chance to flow naturally.

Ai Weiwei, Coffin, 2005 Iron Wood From Dismantled Temples Of The Qing Dynasty Courtesy The Artist And Lisson GalleryAi Weiwei, Coffin, 2005 Iron Wood From Dismantled Temples Of The Qing Dynasty Courtesy The Artist And Lisson Gallery

 

In the outside courtyard, ‘Marble doors’ sees 20 doors stacked into a vague cube shape. No doors lead anywhere and a peek inside results in a glimpse of black tarpaulin, showing the doors alone are what should be admired.

To complete the haunting experience, two films are on display in the basement. ‘Second Ring’ sees pedestrians, cyclists and drivers battle a Beijing ring road. A second look at the manic scene gives the impression that the chaos is actually pretty organised. Oxymoronic as it may be, the video can be viewed on another, simpler level as an insight into the city Ai Weiwei was unable to roam free in.

The whole exhibition offers constant reminders of the arrest of Ai Weiwei. As creative and abstract as his work is, it’s hard to garner the inspiration of the pieces at the time of their creation as it’s nigh on impossible to look past his current situation.

Wherever he may have been, Ai Weiwei’s work in the Lisson Gallery deserves an audience – even if the visitors are more interested in his life than his art.

More Information

Al Weiwei’s exhibition is on display at Lisson Gallery until 16 July.

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