The famous Chinese artist activist Ai Weiwei’s exhibition Inoculation opened last Saturday at PROA: it is the first time that his works are shown in South America – a recurring feature of shows that the PROA Foundation can pride itself on. However large some may consider the cultural distance, Ai Weiwei’s language proves to resonate globally.
The ideas he conveys – often in a poetically layered way, and sometimes less subtly – stem from his own life and experiences and the values he upholds. Ai believes in freedom of speech, confronts oppression and authoritarianism and fights injustices through his art. He grew up with his father not being allowed to write his poetry, first considered a leftist and then a rightist by the Chinese regime and sent away to clean toilets in villages near the North Korean border.
After the death of Mao, the family ended their exile and returned to Beijing, where the 19 year-old Ai went to film school and engaged in the underground art scene, aiming to re-establish self-expression in art. This proved to be too much of a challenge in China and he moved to the United States, where he joined the bohemian life, made art on the streets, studied briefly under Sean Scully at the Parson’s School of Design and familiarised himself with minimalism and conceptualism – Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys especially leaving great impressions. The contour of the legendary conceptual artist of the early 20th century shaped by a coat hanger from Ai’s YMCA dorm is one of the pieces on view at PROA.
Inoculation, or vaccination, the act of injecting contagious matter to induce immunity to the malicious and infectious, made up by the Latin “in oculus,” or “in your eyes,” beautifully sums up the show and its intent. Ai’s works are suggested to be the substance with witch to be injected in order to reconsider your view on society. In the show, his most recent concern with the refugee crisis, to which we have to open our eyes, is symbolised by the Law of the Journey – an installation made of a black inflatable rubber boat with many human figures, which wasn’t shown on this scale previously. The installation fills the entire space on the first floor of the museum and is overwhelming. Although obviously one of Ai’s less subtle pieces, it is surrounded by Odyssey, a wallpaper work, in which oppressive situations are presented in black and white repetition, as if they were scenes on a frieze of a Greek temple.
The images of the refugees fleeing from Syria on rubber boats, hoping to reach the island of Lesbos and the continent of Europe, struck a chord with the artist and became the basis for his most recent works. Alongside his first exhibition in South America, his film Human Flow opened worldwide. In this film, he shows streams of people forced to flee their homelands because oppressive regimes care more for power than human life and dignity. He uses powerful imagery, demonstrating that the scale of this crisis is beyond imagination, while simultaneously reminding us that it deals with human beings.
Ai Weiwei’s own imprisonment in China and his surveillance by the authorities, as he refused to bend his freedom of expression, have shaped his belief in the need to use his creativity to act and change the world. His relationship with China is not one-sided though. It is with fondness that he thinks of chewing sunflower seeds on the streets of Beijing. But public space became a hostile environment for him, and the simple gesture of eating seeds on the street was not so simple anymore. As his physical space – contrary to his digital platform – became smaller, the Chinese economy opened up. “Made in China” became a staple worldwide.
Ai decided to use this with an enormous installation of “Made in China” porcelain seeds that dazzled at the Tate in 2010, a smaller version of which is on display at PROA as well. Porcelain has an important history in China. The Han Dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE) is considered the age of ceramic innovation and vases and urns of that era have a historic value. One of Ai’s most provocative works has been Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, documented by a photographic triptych, on view at PROA in a Lego-piece reconstruction, an assemblage of Lego pieces donated from all over the world – turning the production process global. He breaks the urn, an elegant object made 2000 years ago, letting go of the past. Just as Mao broke ancient culture, and his father’s poetry, but Ai surely has a different intention. Is it because we should be concerned about the present, instead of the past? Or philosophically accept a change of forms?
His fascination with Chinese materials, such as Huali wood, can for instance be seen in the Moon Chests: threemetre high chests made with an antique technique, which does not show any joining materials, turn into a landscape of the different phases of the moon when looking through the holes made into the chests. The work plays with the identity of the Chinese material, but can easily be considered one of the least political pieces in the show. The stainless steel monument of 1,254 bicycles refers to a more contemporary view of Chinese daily life, and can be construed as a comment on a common and every day urban Chinese setting, or as the monument that it is, illuminating its many spinning wheels in front of PROA’s façade in La Boca.