Ai Weiwei has presented three works at this year’s Venice Biennale, two projects, Straight and S.A.C.R.E.D., as part of “Disposition”, a collateral event with Zuecca Project Space, and an impressive installation titled Bang for the German Pavilion at the Giardini.
In 1993, Ai Weiwei returned to Beijing from the US, where he had lived since 1981. Back in his native country, he began to explore China’s artistic and cultural traditions, a pursuit that had been banned with the Cultural Revolution. He spent time studying and collecting antiques, exploring the crafts and eventually began to integrate them into his own conceptual art.
During times of rapid modernisation and fast economic transformations in China, the artist was examining the mechanisms that moved the international art and antiques markets and the resulting export of cultural values and historical knowledge that followed. Chinese society at the same time was also undergoing a process of re-evaluation of principles and ideas, to keep pace with its rapid growth. In the midst of all this, Ai Weiwei also started to delve deep into the clash between old and new values in China.
Bang, his installation for the German Pavilion at the French Pavilion (the countries have swapped pavilions for this year), Ai Weiwei has assembled 886 three-legged wooden stools. This type of stool is, in contemporary China, an antique. It was used throughout China and in all sectors of society for centuries and was manufactured by specialist craftsmen using a uniform method.
Every household would have at least one stool, which served all sorts of domestic purposes and was passed on from generation to generation. After the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent modernisation of the country, however, production of these stools plummeted. Aluminium and plastic superseded wood as the standard material for furniture.
Ai Weiwei recruited traditional craftsmen, still possessing this rare expertise, to create 886 stereotyped and yet highly individual pieces. The artist has arranged the wooden stools in the large high-ceilinged room of the pavilion to resemble a huge rhizome-like structure, growing in every direction and recalling the proliferating organisms that compose today’s world megacities. Controlled in dimensions only by the walls and ceilings enclosing it, the installation gives the impression of something that grows out of control and is too large to stop.
It is indeed quite impressive to look upon and walking through, a mixture of tradition and memory and out of control modernisation.
“The single stool as part of an encompassing sculptural structure may be read as a metaphor for the individual and its relation to an overarching and excessive system in a postmodern world developing at lightning speed.
In the present exhibition, it functions also as a metaphor of the themes addressed in the works of Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng, and Dayanita Singh, each of whom has devised distinctive techniques to present a variety of perspectives on how biographical, cultural, or political identity is related to larger, transnational conditions and circumstances.” (Curator Susanne Gaensheimer)
All Photographs: Ai Weiwei, ‘Bang’, 2013, site-specific installation at the German Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Photos: C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia.