A year after his mysterious 81-day detention by Chinese police, Ai Weiwei performed a personal human rights protest earlier this month with an ironical video project entitled ‘weiweicam’. The operation, which involved four cameras keeping surveillance over his daily activities and broadcasting them on the internet, was forced to shut down 46 hours later, leaving nothing but a blank white holding page. Recognised internationally for his art and lauded as something of a heroic political figure, the great polymath’s influential power is immense, and he is listed among China’s most controversial individuals. He is currently in the midst of a suing battle with the Beijing tax authorities for their alleged violation of the law in use against him.
All the while, his work sits silently in the Lisson Gallery in Milan, his first solo exhibition in Italy – a disparity that highlights the extraordinary contrast between the art and the socio-cultural implications surrounding the artist.
The exhibition focuses on his ceramic and marble pieces created in Jingdezhen, a region known for its ancient – and continuing – practice of earthenware manufacturing, employing traditional methods appropriate to the respective materials. In this way the artist conflates the comfortable accessibility of conservative techniques with challenging conceptual undertones, as is typical of his approach. It is here perhaps most abundantly apparent in Oil Spill (2006), a series of gleaming obsidian puddles that, in their formal allure, simultaneously invite admiration and abhorrence.
Also included are Weiwei’s handmade porcelain pieces – porcelain being traditionally regarded as the highest art form in China – and the notion of its superiority and value is something that the artist has consistently sought to challenge. Indeed, his work is deeply influenced by his specialist knowledge of Chinese antiques. But while many of his most famous works involve the destruction or manipulation of such valuable pieces, the works on display here are entirely original, handmade constructions based on these archaic designs and executed with moving sensitivity.
The display includes a marble plate which Weiwei has carved into with exquisite detail, a serene blue pillar over two metres tall which stands in the gallery garden, and Ghost Gu, a piece forming part of a series of the artist’s studies of Yuan Period porcelain (1279-1368). Whereas stories would traditionally be painted in visual form on the pots’ exterior, Weiwei has literally inverted the technique by covering the interior of the vessels with intricate drawings. The symbolism can be extrapolated to the overall impression of peacefulness, harmony, even placidity in the exhibition, which stirs beneath the surface with murmurs of distemper.
The exhibition runs from April 12th – May 25th at the Lisson Gallery, Milan.