East Meets West or Does it?

Ai Weiwei’s creations are a near-perfect artistic reflection of China’s current socio-political condition. It was, therefore, with particular interest that we visited the exhibition at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi which closes this January 22nd.

For the first time it’s the whole renaissance palace that has been dedicated to an exhibition. The basement part (la Strozzina) and even the exterior are utilised to display this powerful artist. The outer arched windows are ‘decorated’ with red rubber dinghies, reminding one of the refugee crisis that is afflicting Italy in particular.

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The array of school rucksacks arranged in a dragon-serpent formation are a memento mori of the large number of young student lives lost in the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, one of the most destructive of earthquakes in any age, which caused the death of over seventy thousand persons and immense destruction. Ai Weiwei’s take on this was that, after personal investigations, the Chinese government was responsible for many of the deaths through shoddy building work.

It is immediately apparent that Ai Weiwei is a political artist. His inspiration comes largely from reaction to government policies, not just in China but in the rest of the world. It’s true to say that he has strongly focused on disasters, repressions and corruption. Some have criticised Ai Weiwei by saying that he has taken advantage of distressing situations for his art and made money out of them by exploiting people’s lack of liberty and hope. This is somewhat unfair as Ai Weiwei’s own life has also been subject to repression and curtailment of personal freedom. He has been under house arrest, maltreated and even tortured by ‘law’ enforcers, had his passport removed from him for ages and had to suffer spy cameras installed secretly in his house.

(Exhibits in the Strozzi Lift (Elevator)

For me the most blatant example of political machinery used to curtail the artist’s creative process was the demolition, in 2011, of his Shanghai studio which had been supposedly built with government approval.

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In addition to film showing this destruction there was also this exhibit the artist made out of fragments of his rubble studio:

Ai Weiwei certainly attracts attention and may clearly be seen as an embarrassment to his country’s authorities. Indeed, he has grabbed world attention and is often regarded as an agent provocateur exposing China’s less than admirable recent past, floodlighting the country’s re-writing of history through mindless destruction of national heritage, especially during the cultural revolution but also, (I would add) through the demolition of well over half of the historic hutongs (traditional housing districts) in such cities as Beijing.

(Spot the reference, among other pieces, to Hokusai’s wave)

Ai Weiwei’s action in dropping a priceless ancient Chinese vase over two thousand years old, smashing it to smithereens and then reincarnating it in a modern ceramic sculpture may shock many but it’s a compelling act which shows just how strong the artist feels about many aspects of modern China and also how helpless he senses himself in this situation.

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There was a moment of illusory calm in the room displaying a Leonardesque giant polyhedronic sculpture surrounded by Lego portraits of other great renaissance men, all of whom had been repressed, tortured and sometimes even burnt at the stake – people like Galilei (shown the instruments), Savonarola (burnt) and Dante (exiled).

The combination of traditional and modern materials – Lego used for the portraits, industrial paint used to colour earthenware vases – is extensive in Ai Weiwei’s art. Also widespread is his use of repetition. This may partly relate back to the soldiers in the famous terracotta army (although each one there does have a different face) and may also reflect modern imitative industrial processes in China’s prodigious world trade flood, especially in electronics and vehicles.

Of all the Strozzi exhibitions I have attended this one provokes a robust reaction from visitors. Some will find it inspiring and awesome; others will see it as pessimistic and undistinguished. I found most of it quite breath-taking, especially the large sculptures including the one in the central palace courtyard and the cycles (reflecting Chinese current transport pollution as contrasting with the ecologically sound bicycle and also punning on ‘recycling’)  which initiates the inner visit.

It’s important to realise how Ai Weiwei got to where he is now and the Strozzina exhibition in the basement, which includes photographs of America taken in the artist’s youth and a revealing film about what he’s had to put up with in terms of censorship and limitation in his artistic flight, was very welcome.

If anyone finds themselves within a day’s journey to Florence it would be a great pity not to spend some time contemplating the work of someone who many feel is probably the greatest artist alive today.

At least by going there you can make up your own mind about Ai Weiwei and enjoy Florence this season at its fullest.

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