Sunday, October 4, 2015

When Wei Straightens a Tragedy in an Iron Symphony

(Ai Weiwei, controversial Chinese Artist)

I do not think I would ever visit Ai Weiwei’s retrospective exhibition that had a grand opening on 17th September at the Royal Academy, London. There are two reasons for me avoiding this exhibition; one, I live in India and two, the economic recession is not yet over in our contemporary art scene. Had it been those days of market boom, I would have been staying somewhere near the Royal Academy and visiting this show at least three times before I came back. Gone are the good old days where money recognized money and splendor defeated splendor. But those who still remain in the contemporary art scene in India and those who have not yet started working in Gond style for a ‘change’, listen to me carefully, the days are going to be good for you too provided you resist avarice and blindness towards fascist tendencies. If you speak out and up through your works, against religious and political fundamentalism, against the blind and faceless aggression of greed for money and power and if you speak out for the human beings, beings in general and for a clean earth, heaven is for you. But as you know the path to heaven is not that easy; it is ridden with difficulties and temptations. And by the way it was at the gates of the Royal Academy I met another Indian and spoke in Hindi almost two months after landing in the land of fairytales for my higher studies in Creative Curating.

(Straight 2008-12 by Ai Weiwei)

Ai Weiwei, most hated by the Chinese political authorities and most loved by the so called political artists all over the world, is in his irreverent best in his latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. It is his first exhibition after getting released from detention and also after reclaiming his passport from the Chinese authorities. With this retrospective exhibition and a job offer in Germany in hand, Ai Weiwei is temporarily a free man. A Chinese intellectual is never a free intellectual wherever he is. His words and deeds would be recorded, followed, analyzed and if need be punitive measures will be implemented upon him or her based on the words and deeds. Once jailed twice bold, that is the attitude of Weiwei. His works show how he is a bold artist in this world where artists cringe by fear when authorities come knocking at the doors of their studios or homes. I do not think in India many artists have faced such political opposition and state surveillance over them. We have one example to show; M.F.Husain who had been chased by the religious fundamentalists. The state was shying away from protecting him though feelers of protection were sent to him by political and state agencies. He was okay with his exile. But in retrospection Husain does not match up with Ai Weiwei for he was not inviting the ire of the state by his critical art, which Weiwei has been famous for. On the contrary, Husain was trying to please the despots like Indira Gandhi in her heydays in 1970s during the political emergency. If Husain was alive and a truce was mediated by the Qatari government, today Husain would have been painting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Indra or Arjun.

 (Straight by Ai Weiwei from another display)

It is not fair to write about a show that I have not seen. But if I could see the scale of the works and also feel it through video documentations, then I think I am justified in talking about certain works. Once I reviewed a drawing show that was going on in Delhi’s Vadehra art gallery based on my online understanding of it sitting here in Trivandrum, some of my readers objected that I did not do justice to the works because, as they said, I missed out the textures and size. If texture is all about a work of art then art history is a creature without tactile sensibility and I am born out of that creature. Anyway, it is not an occasion to justify deeds as an art critic. This time, however I would be talking about only one work by Ai Weiwei and it is titled ‘Straight- 2008-2012. This work touched my soul and intellect for its sheer power and simplicity. It is a sort of Gandhian work, simple but powerful. And its ‘life’ itself is its message. Let me come to the work of art. It is a 90 ton work that represents a seismic wave, the energy waves that pass through the layers of earth during the earthquake, all made of rusting iron bars. From a distance it looks like solid sculpture and only when you go closer to you understand that these are iron bars, generally used in building concrete structures. The story behind these iron bars is a bit more complex.

 (Matter of Time by Richard Serra)

Weiwei had exhibited this work ‘Straight’ in 2013 in Venice Biennale. The work was not scandalous though it was discussed widely. It was not scandalous enough that it did not get the public attention as the Sunflower seeds of Ai Weiwei got when he hand crafted ten million ceramic seeds and spread them out in the turbain hall of the Tate Modern, London. This work in 2013 weighed 150 tons and in Royal Academy me the size was reduced due to structural capacities of the building. These iron rods carry the story of a great tragedy and a tragedy caused by corruption in the government level. In 2008, in Sichuan province of China there was a terrible earthquake that killed several thousands of people that included around five thousand school kids. They were crushed under the collapsed school buildings. Weiwei studied the tragedy sites. To his horror he found that only the school buildings were razed to the ground. Rest of the buildings in the vicinity stood the impact of the earthquake. This led to the finding of a large scale corruption in the construction of the school buildings. Substandard iron rods and other building materials were used. Ai Weiwei collected the debris and meticulously extracted the mangled iron rods from the concrete blokes. Then he got them straightened using human labor in his studio and cutting them to sizes and shapes, he created the diagram of a seismic wave, commemorating the hapless children who died and also creating a monument for the kind of state corruption prevalent in China. Weiwei was detained for almost three years; first in house arrest, then in detention in penitentiary and later again in house arrest.

 (Fountain by Subodh Gupta)

(Personnes by Christian Bolktansky)

I watch this exhibit again and again. One could say the word ‘Duchampian’ and move further. I have seen several Duchampian works. Joseph Beuys had brought a huge dead tree and placed inside the Tate Britain (or it was acquired by Tate Britain). I have seen rusted iron sculptures of Antony Gormley, Anthony Caro and Richard Serra. None of them have this moving effect of Weiwei’s work titled ‘Straight’. It straightens the iron rods that had caused a huge accident. It straightens the corrupt system by its moral force. It straightens the state with its critical stance. It straightens art’s ability to question and still stand fearlessly. I am moved by this installation and also in one of the preparatory videos I saw Weiwei’s wall installation created out of the school satchels collected from the debris of the school buildings. Hundreds of bags that carried the dreams of little kids become petals in a wall tribute created by Weiwei. Only a very sensitive artist could do it. How can one move away from the presence of such works without welling his eyes up with tears? Though I saw the other exhibits online, I thought I should comment on this work; only this work titled ‘Straight’. Then suddenly I remembered the work of Subodh Gupta. Titled ‘Fountain’ (correct me if I am wrong), this work shows a hillock made up of aluminium vessels with water pipes  fitted with taps sprouting from these utensils. The scale of the works moves people; if you strain a lot you start reading meanings that include water scarcity in Indian rural side, the plight of women who wait for water and so on. Collecting what is already in use is a strategy that both Weiwei and Gupta use in these works. They have a lot to do with Christian Boltansky’s Holocaust works. Still Weiwei’s works is the most powerful amongst them with Gupta coming only to the third position as we consider only three artists in this concluding comment.  

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