translocation – transformation, 21er Haus, Vienna
July 14th 2016 until November 20th 2016
Curator: Mag. Dr. Alfred Weidinger
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese conceptual artist, sculptor, architect and curator. The theme of the exhibition is about translocation, migration and expulsion of people and objects. It is the first exhibition by Ai Weiwei in Austria and outside of China since his release from prison and it is specially curated for the 21er Haus (a museum of contemporary art) in Vienna. There are three installations in the museum and two at the garden from the castle Belvedere next to the 21er Haus.
The main installation in the exhibition hall from the 21er Haus is the Wang Family Ancestral Hall from the late Ming-Dynasty and it’s the first time that it is shown outside of China. The hall is fourteen meters high and has 1,300/1,400 separate parts. The Wang family was among the most important tee traders of the southern Jiangxi province. The family was expelled during the Chinese cultural revolution and the hall fell in decay. The hall takes most of the space from the exhibition hall and fits perfectly into it. Ai Weiwei bought the hall and gave it a new function as an art object specifically to mirror the own history of the 21er Haus, which began as a temporary pavilion for the world exhibition in Brussels, 1958. The Austrian culture ministry decided to bring it back to Vienna and establish it as a permanent museum.
Accompanying the Ancestral Hall are Teahouse, two houses made of pressed Pu-Erh-Tea on a field of tealeaves, and Spouts, a carpet made of broken spouts from antique tea pots. They comment on the tea culture in China and the original owners from the ancestral hall found beside it. The installations are presented on the main floor, which is surrounded on all three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows and allow an interaction with the sculpture garden outside.
Leaving the 21er Haus, the next installation is found around the corner in the garden of the castle Belvedere. The installation F Lotus is made out of 1,005 lifejackets organized in 201 ring-shaped rafts, each containing 5 lifejackets and forming a lotus flower. Together they form the letter F for “fail” or “fuck”, a provoking commentary on the refugee crisis, set in the baroque fountain from the castle. The lifejackets in F Lotus were actually worn by refugees who arrived in Greece. Ai Weiwei responds in this way to Europe’s failure in the refugee crisis and its fucked values towards human life and suffering.
The fountain in the garden is surrounded by Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads. Twelve heads made of bronze from the Chinese horoscope remind of the plunder of the palace Yuanming Yuan close to Peking by French and British troops in 1860. Seven of the Zodiacs have since resurfaced, which Ai Weiwei used to create a new interpretation. The bodiless sculptures have facial expressions and are two meters taller than the original ones, prompting visitors to admire them as they tower. The combination between the animals and water (the fountain) references the originals were each animal spouted water.
The last installation can be found in the staircase of the upper Belvedere. Here the artist shows three flying dragons made from bamboo and silk, three mythical creatures from the Shanhaijing (“Classic from the Mountain and the Sea”), the oldest collection from Chinese mythology.
The F Lotus installation felt like a slap in the face or a bucket of cold water that was dropped on me to wake me up from the slumber of news articles and distant images on TV and social media. Ai Weiwei is famous for criticizing governments, culture and history, and this exhibition is no different. His intent is to reach out to the audience and make them become more sensible towards issues like the refugee crisis and the translocation of people. The theme of transformation and translocation has always been present in his life, his childhood, the beginning in New York, his return to China, his time under house arrest until his release from prison and migration to Berlin. His artworks require the audience to be engaged to the installations. This means that people must know that the lifejackets have been used by humans, and that the Ancestor Hall was built hundreds of years ago. Participation is necessary in conceptual art, and it is not enough to be a passive consumer.