The most striking element of the Biennial this year must be Ai Weiwei’s giant spider web installation – a crystal studded spider with LED lights used to illuminate the web at night like glistening dew. The sculpture spans the entire area of  Exchange Flags.

The Chinese architect designer was inspired by the idea of the spider as one of nature’s master architects. Ai Weiwei was Herzog and de Meuron’s collaborator on Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium.

From the Biennial programme notes:

The spicier is one of nature’s architects, whose ability to weave his silken web provides the means for his survival. Ai Weiwei takes this symbol of creativity, and enlarges it to gigantic proportions, spinning a web of light across the entirety of Liverpool’s Exchange Flags. At the heart of this intricate steel construction is a crystal studded spider, while LED lights strung along the cables allow us to enjoy a paradoxical night-time image of dew glistening in the sun.

Ai has looked to nature for inspiration on previous architectural projects, most notably as Herzog and de Meuron’s collaborator on Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium. But Ai is not so much interested in plays on the natural, more in taking objects and, through a simple intervention (in this case a shift in scale), transforming the familiar into something new and extraordinary, with the result that the idea or image becomes all the more real by virtue of its unreality.

Ai often draws on the* materials of the past, in particular China’s past, for his work, transforming them through assembly, remoulding, or sheer destruction, into present day commentary. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), for example, is a series of black and white photographs documenting the artist doing just that. These works can be read as a direct criticism of decades of cultural suppression and censorship in China. Ai himself spent much of his childhood in the remote province of Xinjiang, where his father, the well-known poet Ai Qing, had been exiled during the Cultural Revolution.

But there’s also a broader, more universal message in these works. They illustrate Ai’s belief in the right for ideas to exist freely, like objects in space. Fairytale, drew considerable attention at Documenta XII (2007). The artist brought 1001 Chinese visitors to Kassel, as well as 1001 Qing dynasty chairs, which were distributed throughout the exhibition’s spaces to provide symbolic points for reflection. The number 1001 was deliberately chosen to emphasise the individual within the group -one person more than a thousand.

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