New York City, USA
This time in our series of reviews we visit Ai Weiwei’s digitized exhibition through a three-dimensional model created by Walter’s Cube. This technological innovation lets the visitors enjoy the artworks in a proportionally scaled digital twin in real time, where walking around and interacting grows into an immersive experience thanks to the Online Viewing Room.
Every artist who wants to leave a mark on the world is faced with two expectations: their works have to be contemporary to make people notice and place them in the current of the history of art, but they also have to be timeless to stay relevant after the issue they reacted to is solved.
Being contemporary is more than living in the present, as following traditions and the footsteps of one’s hero could lead to an anachronistic oeuvre that has nothing to say to coevals, making it autotelic and futile. But avoiding every classic theme alienates the viewers just the same: if the piece can’t be compared to anything, it becomes incomprehensible.
Ai Weiwei shows proof of knowing this with his exhibition titled Roots and Branches in Lisson Gallery, New York. The title is easy to interpret in the light of what’s already been said: the concept is rooted in tradition on both the visual and philosophical levels, considering the storytelling quality of the Egyptian-esque wallpaper and the usage of floral motifs to represent the tree of life in a less direct way.
And as nature ordered, something grows out of the ground, out of the tradition, which in Ai’s case is a statement in political matters that earns him the attribute ‘contemporary’ partly for the thought, partly for the way he expressed that thought through references to industriality and modernity. Including his political views and current situations in his art is a must for him, because he thinks that’s all artists can do, which is not hard to guess from his extensive video documentary work on the abuse of human rights.
Raising his voice against the treatment of refugees is personal to him as he spent his childhood in exile because of the Cultural Revolution in China, which was a violent sociopolitical purge movement. What is really interesting about this is that his cultural heritage wasn’t lost when he fled to the West, on the contrary, it took on an artistic form of activism. It can be quite evident when we look at his ceramics evoking millenia-old Eastern crafts, but sometimes it’s much more subtle, like in his iron casts of tree trunks: the fragments arranged in a circle are an allusion to the Asian tradition of collecting dry pieces of wood as a contemplative exercise.
The respect for broken pieces carry another message that uses the Eastern philosophy to teach a lesson in humanity to those who need it: the parts are not less important than the whole they make. As the fragments are equal to each other in their uniqueness, each fragment is equal to the trunks and roots in the gallery despite the differences in size. Every row of pattern is indispensable on the wallpaper to make it a wallpaper, no matter whether they are original or the repetition of another one. This means that the right to exist is not won in a contest of value or uniqueness, but a given thing.