This exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works forms a biographical journey of sculptural objects which serve as totems of personal experience and also carry a greater intention within art and society. Being a Chinese citizen, as well as a political dissident, it is no wonder that Ai’s work continues to refer to the restrictions that have been placed on him. From a pair of hand cuffs and a gas mask to a bicycle and a Chinese paper lantern, objects reference a sliding scale of limits on freedom imposed by the Chinese political system.
Playing with materiality, Ai dilutes and destroys functionality by imposing unconventional materials on his sculptural objects. Handcuffs, is a pair of handcuffs made from Huali wood, a valuable material used in Chinese folk medicine. They are carefully and beautifully crafted objects and it is easy to forget the meaning of their use enhancing the conceptual politics of the work.
In the garden, two armchairs lie drenched in rain after a recent downpour. Far from sodden, droplets form beads on the surface which slip off the arm rest, because these armchairs are made of marble. Cold to the touch, they are detached and somewhat serene. There will be no sinking into the soft cushions of these armchairs to watch a movie on a Thursday night. The living room furniture is an oxymoron. It is uncomfortable and hard. The work activates conflicting feelings perhaps experienced by Ai when he was confined to the comfort of his home under house arrest. Or perhaps it refers to a deactivated population, who sit in their armchairs cautiously angled away from each other and towards a television, one of the most powerful tools of mass control.
Four Taxi window cranks (2012) make reference to an order by the Chinese government for taxi drivers to remove these tools from their cabs to prevent passengers from distributing protest flyers from the backseat windows during the National Party Congress. Moving one conceptual step further, in a reversal of roles these objects are made from glass and they consequently take on a ceremonial value like a handheld orb of the Chinese government, a pointless symbol of power. Downstairs, Ai’s famous handheld video work shows him easily removing the screws from a public bus in Beijing, where cellotape has been used to fix cracks in the windows which remain shut to block out the polluted Beijing air. At the top of the scale is Mask (2013) a marble gas mask milestone marking the maximum restriction imposed on human rights; the limitation on the basic right to breath and exist.
This exhibition exhibits a varied collection of Ai Weiwei’s work from photographs and film to sculpture. Critically he digs even deeper into the conceptual potential of contemporary objects by attaching such potent personal and political messages to the works.