‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.
Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.
Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit. You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996). For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness. As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual. The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.
The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.
Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.
Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).
For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts. Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.
Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932. It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence. One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:
I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering
And most venerable people
Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:
For my sake,
And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.
Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.
I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.
I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.
Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.
Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.
Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.
Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.
Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.
Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,
Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.
Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …
Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:
I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.
Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979. These are the opening and closing stanzas:
A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west
How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?
Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples. On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008. In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.
Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.
Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)
Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns. Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’
Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013
One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.
But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940
Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in 2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.
Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details
The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts. ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.
Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act. Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei
It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed. Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.
- Ai Wei Wei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
- Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy
- Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern
- Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’