From 18th November FAURSCHOU is presenting a selection of works by Ai Weiwei, undoubtedly one of the most important Chinese contemporary artists at present - according to ArtReview's Top 100 this November, he is actually considered the most significant artist in the world today.
This status should be viewed in the light of the diversity of his artistic practice, which he uses as a platform to speak very directly of the reforms he wants for China. This has in time made the West assign him a role as a dissident.
Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, lives in Beijing, and works as a sculptor, photographer, designer, curator, writer, editor, activist, blogger etc. - and as a recurrent feature of all that he engages with, the point of departure is China's history and culture as well as China's role in a global world.
Many of Ai Weiwei's works from the past decade, for example, are made of local materials and of antique Chinese objects: tables and chairs from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, wood, doors and windows from demolished temples and traditional houses, freshwater pearls, tea, marble, stone, bamboo etc. - 'ready-mades' translated into a conceptual, post-minimalist idiom.
Cultural history and contemporary art
In FAURSCHOU's exhibition you will have the opportunity to make the acquaintance of a number of Ai Weiwei's works created using antique Chinese vases and urns, as well as more recent works in porcelain, made according to centuries-old traditions.
FAURSCHOU is showing Coloured Vases, which is a series of ancient Neolithic vases (5000 - 3000 BC), which Ai Weiwei has dipped in latex paint in bright, strong colours. There is also the Coca-Cola Vase, a vase from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 24 AD) painted over with the Coca-Cola logo.
In the work Dust to Dust you realize with a shudder that the brownish powder in the glass jars in the stringently minimalistic wooden bookcase is dust from Neolithic pottery that has been crushed and ground and now stands as urns in a cemetery wall.
The vases are authentic antique vases which could just as easily have stood in a collection in a historical museum in China. Yet it is not contempt for China's history and tradition that lies behind this harsh treatment of the fine old antiques - on the contrary. His use of the vases should rather be seen as a Dadaistic gesture, as black humour and as a political comment on the organized destruction of cultural and historical values that took place, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when everything old was to be replaced by the new. This stopped after the death of Mao, but the destruction and erosion of Chinese culture continues to this day - now under cover of economic progress.
Ai Weiwei points to the loss of culture by transforming the historical objects into something new - into moving and highly sensual contemporary artworks which thanks to their aesthetic beauty recirculate the meaning and history of these valuable cultural artefacts.
Tradition and modernity
In recent years Ai Weiwei has produced works in porcelain on the grand scale. He has them made in the "Imperial Kilns" in Jingdezhen, about 1000 km from Beijing, where the finest porcelain in China has traditionally been made, and where there is still a master-craftsmanship tradition.
FAURSCHOU is showing Sunflower Seeds, half a ton of the porcelain sunflower seeds that now lie like a whole landscape on the floor in the Turbine Hall of TATE Modern.
Sunflower Seeds is everyday objects transformed into a silent art object with a wealth of connotations. Sunflower seeds are a popular snack in China and the rest of the world, but in China sunflower seeds are also a politically charged historical metaphor. Mao was always depicted as the sun, and with the people as the sunflowers turning their heads towards him. Sunflower seeds were also the frugal diet on which many peasants only just managed to survive during 'The Great Leap Forward' (1958 - 1961), which was Mao's attempt to reform agricultural production through collectivization. It failed; the harvest was miserable, and the result was a three-year famine in which somewhere between 20 and 43 million Chinese are thought to have died.
Ghost Gu coming Down the Mountains is the largest work in the exhibition. It consists of 96 modern Chinese porcelain vases in a form taken from a famous temple vase from the Yuan period (1269-1368). The vases have a blank side and an ornamented side, countering modernity with tradition. The serial repetition of the vases in a grid recalls mechanical reproduction and modernist ways of organizing the world, as a contrast to the fantasies and tales from Chinese history and mythology that are evident from the traditional motifs of the vases.
It is precisely this schism between modernity and tradition that best characterizes China today, a country where history and tradition are so much present - and the modern middle-class China where efficient high-technology production, a western lifestyle and consumerism etc. are spreading rapidly - and where not least the many influences from cultural globalization are challenging this hugely authoritarian country.
TATE Modern Turbine Hall
In his current, fantastic installation, Sunflower Seeds, in TATE Modern's large Turbine Hall, Ai Weiwei has laid a 100-ton thick layer of sunflower seeds on the floor - 100 million seeds - all made of porcelain, produced and painted by hand. It is an incredibly beautiful, poetic work, simple, and with many layers of meaning.
The number of seeds is overwhelming, and yet 100 million is not even that many in the Chinese context. It is precisely in China that it is possible to produce such a labour-intensive work - and the work is very much about the relationship between the mass and the individual, and about China's increasing dominance in the world economy.