25.9.2015-28.2.2016 at HAM - Helsinki Art Museum
by Amelia Aston
Ai Weiwei, legend of Chinese contemporary art known for mastering art forms from architecture to music, has been given his first solo exhibition in Finland at HAM Helsinki. It is also his first exhibition focusing on one single material – wood, important both in Finnish and Chinese culture. The upstairs of the museum offers a great space to the pieces chosen with its impressive floor space and high ceilings. The space accommodates both large sculptures and installations as well as smaller pieces such as videos and photographs. The exhibition, curated by the artist himself as well as Erja Pusa and Heli Harni offers an intriguing and expansive image of Ai's production, as is suitable for his first solo exhibition in the country, presenting both his political and his more whimsical side with pieces that play with language, art historical tropes and the viewer's expectations.
The exhibition presents two brand new works of Ai's. White House (2015), the white skeleton of a Qing Dynasty residential house is a force to be beckoned with at its six metres of height, and a powerful statement against the Chinese government's destruction of cultural history in favour of constant progress. Leaving only the pillars and the rib-like ceiling beams standing converts the once warm and inviting living space into something dead and anonymous. With Garbage Container (2014), Ai's other debuting work of the exhibition, the artist reminds of the tragedy in which homeless children died of carbon monoxide poisoning as they lit a fire in a garbage container to stay warm. By making the garbage container out of beautiful wood Ai transforms something ugly and utilitarian into a coffin and a monument in the memory of the children who were failed by the system.
The exhibition is not all doom and gloom, though, as Ai's unique sense of humour shines through amidst the works focusing on tragedy, proving there is still fun to be had in the world regardless of the situation. Works such as Traveling Light (2007) make jokes about language, while his impossible furniture, such as Table with Three Legs (2006) transform everyday objects into art in a nod to Surrealism. Apart from the art historical references in some of these these pieces, such as Hanging Man (1986), a tribute to Marcel Duchamp, these humorous works are the exhibition's weakest link. Works such as Divina Proportio (2012), inspired by the artist's cat's toy seem a tad trivial when contrasted with Ai's more political works. While it is understandable that variation was desired for the exhibition, these works could have been easily left out.
Furthermore, it is not like Ai's political works are all very serious, either, as the works from the Study in Perspective series (1995 →) selected for the exhibition prove. The rather iconic series comprises of photographs of famous cultural and political monuments around the world paired with the artist's raised middle finger in the foreground. The three photographs, taken in Finland, show the Parliament House, the Helsinki Cathedral and a Viking Line cruise ship, and are a kind of private joke between Finns and Ai as the culture they reference is something foreign to people not well acquainted with the country. By being in on the joke in this way Ai makes himself seem more approachable and relatable to the Finnish audience and paints a picture of an artist who is both anarchist and a humorist, an intellectual and a populist not afraid to show his appreciation of low-brow culture. This describes the comprehensive and compelling picture the HAM exhibition presents of the artist.
Images are courtesy of the HAM
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