Ai WeiWei at Lisson Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on June 27, 2014

Ai Weiwei

Lisson Gallery

Until 19 July 2014


The exhibition notes for this third Ai Weiwei solo show at Lisson Gallery state that “The formative influence and example of Marcel Duchamp, as an artistic hero of Ai’s…looms large”. However, it seems that although both artists question authority and institutions, in this exhibition, the strength of Ai’s works lies in some important differences.

Dominating the exhibition in terms of scale is a series of new sculptures titled ‘Forever’. These stainless steel sculptures, that resemble bicycles piled on top of each other, are certainly reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, ‘Bicycle Wheel’. However, where Duchamp sought to choose objects for his readymades which he felt indifferent to, Ai Weiwei selects his precisely because they are loaded with symbolism. In this case, ‘Forever’ is a brand of bicycles that were once hugely popular in Beijing, as was cycling itself. Both are now in significant decline as they are being replaced by polluting cars, which are worsening an already very serious problem. The artist remakes window cranks in glass because these objects came to represent the extent that the authorities would go to prevent interruptions to the 18th National Congress. Through interviews with taxi drivers and filming around the capital city on the day of the Congress in 2012, a film in the exhibition explains their relevance. It reveals that, at that time, there was an order to remove window cranks from taxis, intended to prevent protestors throwing leaflets into the streets.

In a further step away from Duchamp, the objects in this exhibition are not simply everyday items presented in a gallery space, but are realistic reconstructions produced from valuable and precious materials. The artist’s juxtaposition of subject and material is important in these works. His use of materials such as marble and jade to reconstruct objects including his father’s armchair, handcuffs, hangers and cosmetics bottles gives them permanence and authority which makes them harder to ignore. In a censored society, this insistence on longevity is politically charged.

Although the political intent in these works is clear, it is also evident that their creator is primarily a visual artist, rather than an activist merely using art as a tool. There is a high degree of craftsmanship throughout and a unique creative approach. The reproduced bicycles are formally arranged and create impressive geometric patterns. Towering over 3m high, the largest of these sculptures allows the viewer a series of changing views as they walk around it. The repeated stainless steel parts lock into place and create new harmonious views with every step taken. Lisson Gallery Curatorial Director, Greg Hilty, has described this work as ‘a thing of modernist beauty’ and it is hard to deny this. In the photographic series ‘Study of Perspective’, the anti-establishment message is confused by an ocean and salt flats becoming the object of Ai’s raised middle finger, along with more recognisable institutions such as Sydney Opera House, the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower. A purely political protest might avoid introducing this ambiguity.

Duchamp’s often playful gestures poked fun at the art establishment and in turn the wider status quo by disrupting expected artistic vocabulary. Though at times more light-hearted (there is certainly a childish aspect to ‘Study of Perspective’), Ai draws upon the established value of materials and artistic practices to produce his political critiques while also creating very effective pieces of art. It is in his ability to weave the artistic and political together that makes Ai Weiwei one of the best known and respected artists in the world.

Though not permitted a passport to leave his home country, the artist currently has exhibitions across the globe. There are four major works at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and two other solo shows in Berlin and New York.


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Amy Wevill

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Amy Wevill is a writer, exhibition organiser and freelance art industry professional with a History of Art degree from UCL. Twitter: @AmyWevill

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