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Ai Weiwei
Bare Life

SEPTEMBER 28, 2019–JANUARY 5, 2020

The thoughtful and provocative exhibition Ai Weiwei: Bare Life foregrounded the controversies and contradictions that animate the work of Ai Weiwei, a protean artist twice named the most influential artist in the world.

In collaboration with curator Sabine Eckmann, Ai chose to display a modest number of things, yet still managed to include a diverse range of sculptural objects, photographs, and videos, dating from the mid-1990s through 2019.

Dividing this body of work into two separate galleries, the curators identified themes that have preoccupied Ai Weiwei. Dubbed a “Twitter bodhisattva” by one of his followers, Ai Weiwei has since 2008 devoted himself to resisting China’s Party-state authorities and drawing attention to humanitarian crises around the world, while endeavoring, he has claimed, to awaken people to the absurdity of life.2 The gallery titled “Bare Life,” a term derived from the writings of Giorgio Agamben, exhibited work that represented the plight of the disempowered, in particular the thousands of schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—Forge Bed Rebar and Rebar (2008–12); Rebar and Case (2014)—and the countless refugees who have fled wars in the Middle East: Odyssey and Tyre (2016).

Figure 1. right

Virginia Woolf’s bed at Monk’s House. Courtesy of John Cummings via Wikimedia Commons.

By contrast, the gallery titled “Rupture” displayed work that represented the consequences of the social and economic changes that have altered contemporary Chinese life and displaced its historical past: the stone feet chipped away from Buddhist figural sculptures, Feet (2010), and wallpaper composed of 128 photographs of demolished urban neighborhoods all over China: Provisional Landscapes (2002–8). Recognized for the wit of his conceptual artwork, Ai Weiwei has since the mid-1990s reconfigured artifacts from China’s historical past to disturb the complacency or indifference with which they have been viewed.

Monk's House, Rodmell, UK. Courtesy of Elisa.rolle via Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 6. top:
Monk’s House, Rodmell, UK. Courtesy of Elisa.rolle via Wikimedia Commons.

Each gallery was dominated by a structure that embodied the two curatorial themes. “Bare Life” was dominated by an arch constructed of 720 stainless steel bicycle frames aligned in a complex arrangement of units of six repeated 120 times (figure 2). Titled Forever Bicycles (2012), the mesmerizing arch cut across the gallery and extended toward the ceiling, creating a moiré effect in three dimensions. The arch was also a gateway, which echoed the conditions of movement, displacement, and death that Ai represented on the black-and-white wallpaper, the porcelain vessel-sculptures, and the marble replicas that surrounded the arch. The Forever bicycle frame itself called to mind an earlier work titled Very Yao (2009), which memorialized the execution of a drifter named Yang Jia, who, after being arrested in Shanghai for riding an unregistered bicycle, attacked and killed several police officers in retaliation.3

“Rupture” was dominated by Through (2007–8), an enormous structure built with heavy wooden beams, salvaged from an old temple (figure 3). The beams haphazardly crisscrossed as they extended toward the ceiling. With mathematical precision, their weight was supported by ends that touched the ground. Ten old decorated tables, scattered around the periphery of the structure and roughly hewn to fit the beams that seemed to pierce their surfaces, demarcated the boundaries of the open structure. Standing under its broken beams, I was uneasy, for this primordial canopy was also a ruin. In its precarious yet upright state, Through complemented the act of rejuvenation through destruction that was repeated throughout “Rupture,” notably in the old wooden bed, a site of procreation carved with auspicious signs yet entombed in the rubble salvaged from Ai’s destroyed Shanghai studio: Souvenir from Shanghai (2012).

A contrast between the materials featured in the two galleries further distinguished them and reinforced their respective evocations of death and rejuvenation. On the one hand, “Rupture” presented a culture of wood, a culture of hand-made objects, exemplified by the capacious Through (figure 4). On the other hand, “Bare Life” presented a culture of metal, a culture of the machine that reproduces things on an industrial scale, exemplified by Forever Bicycles. This was a compelling juxtaposition, for in the ancient Chinese system of the Five Processes (wuxing), metal and wood were considered a pair: metal was associated with the West and the season of autumn, a time of drawing in, whereas wood was associated with the East and the season of spring, a time of coming to life.4 Accordingly, the western gallery, “Bare Life,” was haunted by death.

The bicycle frames recalled the execution of a drifter; the refugees figured on the black-and-white wallpaper were surrounded by soldiers and armored vehicles. The bombs meticulously delineated on the wallpaper that covered the outside of this gallery were designed to kill (figure 5). Conversely, the eastern gallery, “Rupture,” demonstrated regeneration. Lifeless wooden stools formed a cluster of imagined fruit in Grapes (2015), and an earthenware pot from the second century CE gained another life outside the tomb once the words “Coca-Cola” were inscribed on its surface: Coca-Cola Vase (2015–18).5

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