Ai Weiwei Exhibit at the AGO

Ai Weiwei art retrospective at the AGO According to What? from Wicked and Weird

This weekend we had the pleasure of hosting my brother- and sister-in-law, who were in town from Kelowna.  There was much food and wine, but we also classed it up with a visit to the AGO to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit before it closed (yesterday).  I am SO happy that I got to see it, it really was amazing.

[Warning: this post got kinda looooong.]

Ai Weiwei is probably best known for being a thorn in the Chinese government's side; I first heard of him during the Olympics when he used the public platform given to him as the designer of the show-stopping "Bird's Nest" stadium to loudly denounce China's record of human rights.  He has been incarcerated, had his studio destroyed, kept under 'house arrest', followed, interrogated, and been beaten to the point of a brain hemorrhage by Chinese authorities.  As you can imagine, his art is completely intertwined with his political sentiments.  I expected to be moved by the messages in his art, but was not prepared to be so moved by the art itself.  It was beautiful, warm, meticulously crafted and aesthetically enchanting.

In most of his works, Weiwei uses traditional Chinese materials and techniques in new, and often subversive ways.  The top left image is of his piece Teahouses, 2011 which consists of three precisely packed and positioned houses made out of tea leaves.  Each house weighs one ton (and needed to be installed by a structural engineer).  The smell of the tea is beautiful, and the effect of standing before such an imposing and heavy piece that is made out of miniscule scented dried leaves is confounding.

Beside it is a close-up of what was an enormous, long piece.  It was created out of Chinese iron wood pillars from a dismantled Qing Dynasty temple.  The pillars (it looks like there were eight?) were fused together using traditional Chinese joinery techniques with no nails or screws holding them together.  This homage to Chinese history and craftsmanship is juxtaposed with a machine-cut detailed outline of China that runs the entire length of the pillars.  As my four-year-old would say "How the HECK...??"  It is oh so beautiful.

Below are enormous traditionally built cabinets made of huali wood (from the quince tree).  The glow and grain of the wood is incredible - if I had been allowed to touch the art I think I might have rubbed my face on it.  What can I say, I love wood.  Below you can see a close-up looking through the holes at the centre; somehow using positive and negative space, the cabinets lined up together show all of the phases of the moon, which is the basis for the Chinese zodiac calendar.

Lastly is a massive snake that was positioned just outside the entrance to the show made of 5,000 backpacks, representing the 5,000 children lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  Most of these children were killed when their schools, built by a cheap government with absolutely no building codes or safety inspections, collapsed around them.  When the government refused to acknowledge the disaster, take responsibility for the shoddy building construction, or even bother recovering the names of those who died, Weiwei went to the site of the tragedy and launched a door-to-door campaign to discover and honour the name of every single child that died in Sichuan. One wall of the exhibition was a memorial to them and showed every name, date of birth and date of death, while voice read them out one by one.

Another highly effective memorial to the victims of the earthquake is shown below, consisting of the cheap iron rebar found in the rubble of the schools and other buildings.  Weiwei's team painstakingly straightened each mangled bar and placed them together in an undulating river under the quote: "The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence.  We are spineless and cannot stand up straight." It was very powerful.

Ai Weiwei art retrospective at the AGO According to What? from Wicked and Weird

So I didn't realize that this post was going to be a long art essay on every piece in the show!  I will speed through the Coles Notes of the rest (doing their beauty and impact no justice).  Top left is a nod to the commercialization of the world with the Coke logo painted over an antique Han Dynasty urn: cheap modern advertising desecrating a work of art that had previously lasted centuries. Or is it that the bones and shaped of the past lie under and give structure to everything we do?  Or that the foundations of Chinese culture are strong and can withstand cheap decoration, unlike the bones of the buildings in Sichaun? Discuss amongst yourselves.  Also a nod to pop art a la Andy Warhol.

Bottom right is called Divina Proportione, referencing a drawing by da Vinci with the same name.  Again, his team put this together using only traditional craftsman techniques, which took them over a year to learn.  The joinery was mind-blowing, not to mention the complicated geometry required.  The beautiful wood is reclaimed huali wood, and what I wouldn't do to have one of these in my house... I drooled over them for a good long while.

Ai Weiwei retrospective at the AGO including Dropping Han Dynasty Urn

Above is two works: Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn (in which the artist drops a Han Dynasty urn) and Colored Vases in which, like the Coke urn above, ancient urns are dipped in cheap colourful paint from the bottom and the top.  Aside from the desecration of centuries-old urns, I thought these were quite pretty!  Sometimes I'm shallow that way...

Ai Weiwei AGO retrospective  He Wei 3000 crabs seen on Wicked and Weird

Above is the piece He Xie, 3,000 individually-painted porcelain crabs.  Apparently He Xei means river crab, but the sound of the words is very similar to that of the Mandarin pronunciation for "harmonization"- a Chinese government slogan and euphemism for censorship.  Weiwei had these crabs made in an economically-depressed village, with the hope of "giving them something to do and keeping the old way of making things alive." As a thank you gift for creating this amazing work of art, Weiwei had his studio destroyed and was thrown in jail.  Doesn't sound like a fair trade to me.

Thanks for reading all the way down here; I think you have probably gathered at this point that I really liked the show and admire the strength of Weiwei's convictions.  I wish I had gone earlier and could tell you all to run out and see it, but alas, it has moved on.  I am not sure if his installations are still on display at Nathan Philips Square?  I didn't get to see those but heard that they are also quite impressive!  Did anyone else catch this show?  What did you think?


  1. So glad I got to go with you Lisa!

  2. I have heard only good things about the exhibit. My parents are coming next week so it's definitely something I want to check out with them (if it's still there!). Thanks for the overview!

  3. Very cool. I was hoping to get down to see the exhibit - looks like it was amazing.

  4. My son and daughter went in the summer and loved it. My son, in particular, is obsessed with ai Weiwei's work. He had me watch a video about his work and I have to say I found the dropping of the Han vase really disturbing. The Coke logo on it isn't quite as bad, but dropping it shocked me. I never got myself organized to go and see the exhibit myself (mostly because I forgot about it after the kids went off to university - oops). Interesting review - thanks for writing it up.

  5. My hubby listened to that interview on Q and he was amazed at her thought process and how articulate she is. He loved listening to her and learning something new about her as an icon.

  6. Stoned or not (in a stupor?), I love what you wrote. I agree, Joni seems to be one of those rare ethereal creatures who had no choice but to be a musician.

  7. She really is so thoughtful and imaginative, and outspoken! I guess 70 is liberating. :)

  8. Thanks Jen! Yes, I debated putting in a #drunkenstupor joke, but decided Joni wouldn't like it. :) Thank you for doing it for me!


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