Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to launch exhibition at Kettle's Yard
Internationally-renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is launching a new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in which new and existing work will be shown alongside historic Chinese objects.
The exhibition is set to explore notions of truth, authenticity and value, as well as globalisation, the coronavirus pandemic and the current geopolitical crisis.
Ai Weiwei, who lives part of the year in Cambridge, will reflect upon the liberty in the West – in contrast to China and other authoritarian regimes – to question truth and authority, express doubt and seek transparency in political matters.
The director of Kettle’s Yard, Andrew Nairne told the Cambridge Independent: “Ai Weiwei first became particularly famous in the UK because of his extraordinary sunflower seeds installation that he made in 2011 at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern where he filled it with 100 million hand-painted sunflower seeds and I was at the opening of that and met him then and I also saw an important exhibition by him at the Royal Academy.
“So when we discovered that Ai Weiwei, this extremely famous artist, had moved to Cambridge, we had a space in our exhibition program and it made a lot of sense to invite him to be interested in doing something in the gallery.”
The pair met in 2019 and this new show is the result.
Andrew said: “There is something rather extraordinary about an artist who is as well known for commenting on the state of China on Newsnight, as for his art. His art is central to who Ai Weiwei is but what’s also central is the feeling that he’s engaged and connected with the issues of our time, whether it’s migration, whether it’s the state of China, and China’s place in the world. We will be showing the extraordinary objects he has commissioned alongside objects that he’s acquired from an auction house in Cambridge.”
The exhibition is a single installation with 13 artworks by Ai Weiwei alongside 14 antiquities the artist bought at auction in Cambridge in 2020. This will be the first time the artist has juxtaposed historic Chinese objects with his own works.
Some of the auction pieces acquired by the artist are thought to date from the Northern Wei (386-534 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasties, while others have been identified as counterfeits, later copies of original works. A number of recent films made by the artist will also be screened on each day of the exhibition’s run – Coronation (2020), Cockroach (2020) and Human.
In the earlier works on display, Ai reflects upon the interplay between the modern and the traditional as in Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo (2014), which will be juxtaposed with a similar vessel from the Han Dynasty (Chinese painted Han Dynasty pottery graduated ‘cocoon’ vase). Similarly, the base for Surveillance Camera with Plinth (2014) is an exact replica of the lamp posts to be found from the Northern Qi Dynasty, around 560CE (shown in the exhibition will be A Chinese black limestone pedestal oil-lamp).
The exhibition will also include one of the artist’s most renowned works, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2015), made in a favourite medium: LEGO bricks.
Ai’s more recent works allude to globalisation and the ongoing pandemic, such as Marble Takeout Box (2015) and Marble Toilet Paper (2020). Marble Helmet (2015) recreates a worker’s hat, which is the kind of hat used by the rescue team of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They also reflect the worship of contemporary objects with iPhone Cutout (2015), for example, juxtaposed with Buddhist statues which would have been revered in the past.
By displaying works from different periods together and those whose full identity has not yet been researched or established, Ai draws attention to the ways in which meaning and value is attributed to objects. The exhibition will question the role played by museums as historical and cultural gatekeepers – celebrating certain objects and not others – as well as exploring differing concepts of truth and authenticity in China and the Western world.
Ai sees the West as obsessed with notions of truth and artistic authenticity, whereas truth in Chinese philosophy is allied to nature and therefore constantly in flux. Though this attitude attributes value to the defective and the imperfect, the exhibition will also celebrate the craftsmanship displayed in all the works and objects: ancient, forged and those commissioned by Ai from some of the most skilled crafts people in China.
Ai said of the exhibition: “In China, everything, including the human condition and aesthetic judgments, is considered a part of nature. The concept of ‘truth’ is also part of nature and hence not an absolute. That’s why reinterpretation, re-rendering and recreation of artworks through personal reflections are valued more in the common perception than artworks which are deemed absolutely ‘true’ or ‘real’.
“This nuanced and blurred understanding of ‘truth’ is not only a Chinese state of mind with respect to philosophical approaches including modern aesthetics and ethics, but also what distinguishes China from the West in the matter of politics and social considerations.”
Kettle’s Yard’s director Andrew Nairne added: “Obviously, I think Ai Weiwei is most well known for his freedom of expression, being an exile from an authoritarian regime in China, his extraordinary story of his childhood and family background and eventually having to leave China in order to carry on being an artist who’s free to make not just make objects but say what they want to say.
“The title of our exhibition is The Liberty of Doubt. The point about this rather elegant and intriguing phrase is that we have it in the West in countries where we don’t have an authoritarian regime. But if you are a citizen of China, you don’t have the liberty of questioning what you’re being told by the Chinese Communist Party. You don’t have the liberty of doubt. You have to accept a given truth from the government, or from the authority.
“The whole basis of Western democracies is that people can protest and people can disagree. They can have different opinions and viewpoints.
“There are so many objects in this exhibition that I can’t wait to see. One of the most exciting is handcuffs that have been made of jade, which is a particularly revered material in China. And more important in people’s minds than gold, for example; more symbolic, more resonant.
“So he’s effectively made the handcuffs that were put on him when he was arrested in 2011 and disappeared for 81 days. He was about to get on a plane leaving Beijing when he was arrested at the airport and nobody knew where he was. Of course, eventually he was released, that’s when he became a global figure. He said to me making these handcuffs was phenomenally difficult because of the sort of relative detail involved.
“The exhibition downstairs is about beautifully crafted objects, whether they are original Han dynasty bowls that are more than 1,000 years old, or whether they are counterfeits.
“Some of the objects bought in an auction are thought to be copies made in the last 40 years, but they’re very beautifully made. So there’s a really interesting question going on in the exhibition around about authenticity, but it’s also asking: does it matter? These objects are equally beautiful, but one of them’s 1,500 years old and one of them’s 20 years old.
“I think one of the ones that people really enjoy is a takeaway box with chopsticks on top that is made out of marble. It’s incredibly beautifully crafted. So something that is completely thrown away is made of this material that you associate with classical sculpture.
“It raises all sorts of interesting questions about the fact the styrofoam boxes don’t biodegrade. But he’s also making something very simple and ordinary into a beautiful object through using another material.
“We also have a mobile phone made of jade. He just wants to elevate and draw your attention to everyday objects a little bit like the pop artists in the 60s.”
Andrew recalled: “I was very excited when he proposed this exhibition because we had this perfect combination of very visually compelling objects, things that you will be attracted to, you will want to look at, and we’ll be looking at the beautiful marble, looking at the incredible technique and craftsmanship, and at the same time, that it’s a kind of proposition.
“The exhibition is a provocation and a proposition, which is asking questions around what’s true and what isn’t true.”
The Liberty of Doubt is at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge from February 12-June 19, from 11am-5pm. Entry is free but booking is recommended via https://kettlesyard.digitickets.co.uk/category/13869.