23 May - 19 Jul 2014
Forever , 2013
Stainless steel bicycles in silvery
3 pairs 6 layers
313.3 x 180.5 x 282.8 cm
23 May - 19 July 2014
For his third solo exhibition with Lisson Gallery (29 Bell Street), Ai Weiwei has created a monumental new installation of bicycles as part of an ongoing series, ‘Forever’, as well as a number of hand-carved, domestic-scale copies – in various materials including wood, stainless steel and crystal – of some highly personal objects. These include: a marble recreation of his father’s armchair; two sets of humble cosmetics bottles fashioned from jade; various handmade facsimiles of coat-hangers and pairs of handcuffs; as well as the window handles taken from Beijing taxis, which appear to be readymades, only remade in clear glass.
Although some of the sculptures in this show relate to his secret detention of 2011 – during which he spent 81 days accompanied only by his interrogators and the scant furnishings of his cell – the overall impression is of Ai’s life as it was before and currently is in Beijing, confined as he is to his native China. The formative influence and example of Marcel Duchamp, as an artistic hero of Ai’s discovered during his period living in New York from 1983–93, also looms large.
A ghostly, carved-marble gas mask, like a deaths-head emerging from a tomb, relates to the perpetual pollution experienced in the Chinese capital city, while the massing of bicycles also addresses a stereotypical national symbol in an uncompromising and unconventional way. Ai’s groupings of stainless-steel bikes – here configured in different modular shapes and layers of geometrically stacked structures – refer to the famous ‘Forever’ brand of bicycles that have been mass-manufactured in Shanghai since 1940. Once ubiquitous, this classic marque and indeed the perceived profusion of pushbikes on Beijing streets are now steadily dying out, to be replaced by smog-emitting cars on clogged highways and six-lane ring roads. The transparent Taxi Window Crank pieces are further examples of a surreal political system that insists on removing such mundane items from public life for fear that protesters would transmit their leaflets through car windows during sensitive times.
Conceptual artist Ai Weiwei positions himself in and out of his Beijing studio as a cultural arbiter. Compelled by a sense of social conscience, his artistic practice extends across many roles, from filmmaker and photographer, to writer, publisher, curator and architect. As an heir to Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, yet digging deep into Chinese heritage, he moves freely between a variety of formal languages, and reflecting on contemporary geopolitics, he takes no prisoners. In recycling historical materials, loaded with meaning, such as Han Dynasty vases or wood from destroyed temples, Ai distils ancient and modern aesthetics in works of salvage or iconoclasm. Public commissions, like bringing 1,001 Chinese citizens to the small German town of Kassel for documenta 12 (Fairytale, 2007), or the pouring of hundreds of millions of handmade porcelain seeds into the Tate’s Turbine Hall (Sunflower Seeds, 2010), are audacious gestures that command global attention, but are always underlain with humour and compassion. He is one of the leading cultural figures of his generation and consistently displays great courage in placing himself at risk to affect social change through his art. He serves as an example for legitimate social criticism and free expression both in China and internationally.