If you’re anything like me, you may have heard of this Ai Weiwei guy before, or seen his name written in various places but you still don’t really know what all the fuss is about. The good news friends, if you’re in Berlin at any stage in the next three months, is that his latest one-man exhibition ‘Evidence’ opens today and runs until July 7th. ‘Evidence’ is a sprawling exhibition of protest art installations of the most celebrated kind, and does a great job of telling this man’s story and his struggle against the forced conformity and corruption of the modern Chinese government. I won’t spoil it and tell the whole story here, but for a guy who knocked all this together in his simple but spacious studio outside Shanghai, the 3,000 square metres of exhibitions across 18 rooms comes across as quite the feat.
The majestic Martin Gropius Bau on Niederkircherstrasse in Mitte, is the host of this fine experience, and that’s exactly what ‘Evidence’ is, an experience. The first sight that greets you (above) is mighty impressive – 6,000 antique wooden stools sourced from rural China, bunched together to form an almost flat surface on the floor of the main atrium. Subsequent parts of the exhibition relate directly or indirectly to Ai’s struggle with the authorities in his home country, with his outspoken views and message of defiance peppered through his installation art. Different sections of the exhibition include an exact reproduction of the secret prison cell space he was forced to stay in and tortured for 81 days in 2011, when the Chinese government arrested him and prevented him traveling to Hong Kong by holding him on trumped tax evasion charges, among others. Since his release he’s been left without a valid passport and the ability to travel abroad, a situation which has seen the resolution of his plight become somewhat of a cause célèbre, and rightly so.
In 2008 Ai was invited by the Shanghai city council to construct an extra large studio space, yet upon its completion it was destroyed in a single day by the same authorities after he dared criticize the government. Again Ai turned his oppression into a work of art as he salvaged parts of the wreckage to create “Souvenir from Shanghai” (above). Ai’s defiance to non-Chinese symbols and entities is also exhibited in a collection of photos which use his middle-finger ‘fuck you’ salute to play with aspects of perspective. I couldn’t resist imitating him and taking one of my own (below, right).
Speaking through a pre-recorded video message shown at the press conference, Ai talked about the different elements on display in ‘Evidence’-
“Some are related to my current condition, related to my concerns; some are more aesthetic presentations of the kind of concerns that I always have with art, art history,”
He continued by explaining Berlin as the choice for his latest exhibition, telling us that “Germany is a place that gives me a lot of support”. Indeed Ai Weiwei is in fact a professor at the Berlin University of Arts, and the pupils enrolled in his course are certainly in that rare minority of students who actually lament rather than celebrate a teacher’s absence. Wouldn’t you if your teacher could teach you to make stuff like golden castings of animals of the Chinese Zodiac or ancient Han Dynasty vases (see below) dipped in the same metallic paint used by modern day car manufacturers in Europe, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz ?
Ai even shows a musical side in this dreamlike music video depicting his incarceration in that secret prison cell for 81 days (below). Make of it what you will, but there can be no doubt that this man has captured the imagination of the West, as he publicly frowns on and denounces the trespasses of the Chinese regime. On this evidence, he’s well worth a visit, for fans and novices alike.
‘Evidence’ opens today at Martin Gropius Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin
WED to MON 10:00 to 19:00
From 20 May: Daily 10:00–20:00
Single tickets € 11 / reduced rate € 8
Groups (5 persons or more) p. p. € 8
Admission free up to age 16