Ai Weiwei Absent (艾未未‧缺席), the appropriately titled exhibition currently on view at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), is the best show of the Chinese artist’s work you are likely see in Taipei for at least the next few years. Unfortunately, the displayed works reveal little about why he has become one of the world’s most important and respected artists.
The target of a renewed crackdown on dissent, Ai’s vocal critique of the Chinese Communist Party over the past few years has been met with surveillance, harassment, beatings, detentions and the destruction of his studio in Shanghai. Arrested in April on what human rights activists say were trumped up charges of tax evasion, he was released on bail in June, reportedly with the caveat that he doesn’t speak about his detention or leave Beijing. Hence the “absent” of TFAM’s title.
There is, however, a less noticeable but perhaps more sinister absence in this show. Ai’s social sculptures and virtual performance works, both of which seek to abolish the line separating his personal and public lives and engage the public in his work through social media (blogs, Twitter), are nowhere to be found.
It’s an interesting omission because these are the very projects that have gotten Ai in the most trouble with Chinese authorities. Oddly, staff at TFAM say that Ai chose the works on display himself, with the majority coming from his Beijing studio. Has an icon for the merging of art with activism, aesthetics and politics been muzzled? Almost certainly not. But if the TFAM show is anything to go by, he has been muted.
The retrospective covers photography from his early period in New York and Beijing’s East Village, as well as recent sculptures, installations and video work. Though there is no overriding theme, it does offer a worthwhile, albeit neutered, survey of his oeuvre.
What: Ai Weiwei Absent (艾未未‧缺席)
When: Until Jan. 29. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30am to 5:30pm and until 8:30pm on Saturdays
Where: Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM, 台北市立美術館), 181, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市中山北路三段181號), tel: (02) 2595-7656
On the Net: www.tfam.museum
The two sections on Ai’s photography — 100 photos, amounting to almost half the exhibition — deserve the closest scrutiny, because they foreshadow his later work.
The 50 black-and-white images collected in Ai’s New York Period (紐約時期, 1983 to 1993), reveal the young artist to be an intrepid and sympathetic documenter of street scenes in the tradition of early Robert Frank. Images of homeless people living underground are placed alongside photos of protesters getting bashed around by police. Other photos draw attention to Ai’s early artistic influences. In one he stands beside a picture of Andy Warhol. Another shows him staring at a work by Marcel Duchamp, while a third depicts Ai’s Profile of Duchamp, Sunflower Seeds (1983), an early sculpture that is both a bow to the master of the readymade and a progenitor of Ai’s Sunflower Seeds (2010), a massive carpet of 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds he created for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London.
Ai maintained his passion for documentation after he returned to Beijing in 1993, settling in what came to be known as Beijing East Village (北京東村), a collaborative of hard-hitting avant-garde performance artists, painters, sculptors and photographers that he records in the second series of photographs on display.
The community’s raucous atmosphere is aptly summarized by the photos Ai took of Zhang Huan’s 65 Kilograms, a performance art piece for which the artist strapped himself to a ceiling naked and bled onto a mattress below. It is perhaps inevitable that in the radical atmosphere of the collective’s performance art — Ma Liuming (馬六明) walking naked along the Great Wall or, later, Zhu Yu (朱昱) cooking and eating what he said was a human fetus — Ai developed an antagonistic and combative style.