We’ve seen a lot of marble used over the past year in furniture, product and graphic design, and even in fashion as digital prints. Here it is used by artist Ai Wei Wei in what is perhaps the most apt manner—for the purpose of social critique. Ai Wei Wei has risen to international prominence despite (and also due to) his widely-criticized 81 day detainment by the Chinese authorities in 2011, and has since continued producing work—even though he is barred from traveling overseas to be present at his own shows, with his passport still being withheld by authorities. His commitment to social activism and the protection of free speech is laudable, especially since politics and art are seldom a successful mix.
His current show at Lisson Gallery in London is largely made up of meticulously sculpted objects, sparsely arranged, some encased in glass display cases. His photographic series Study of Perspective, depicting him giving the middle finger to various structures of power around the world, dilute what may appear to be a serious museum display with a touch of cheeky humour. A good sense of humour is surely needed for someone in his situation, and the rest of the aesthetically beautiful objects point to some of the problems he encounters in the homeland he is bound to. A conglomeration of bicycles harks back to the days when Beijing was famed for this mode transport, now overtaken by cars and pollution. The gas mask, immortalized in marble, serves as a sinister warning. Highly personal items intermingle with those of wider cultural and political significance. There are handcuffs and coat-hangers, re-created from crystal, jade and huali wood, that refer to his detainment. Traditional lanterns and replicas of his father’s armchairs carved from heavy marble. Glass replicas of taxi window cranks are a puzzling sight, until we find out that these have been banned from Beijing taxis, in order to prevent passengers from distributing protest leaflets.
Every object in this exhibition is charged with cultural and personal references it is up to us to research further and decode. It’s an unapologetic display of dissent towards the authorities, but also a narrative of Ai Wei Wei’s experiences and struggles as an individual. The exhibit will be on until 19 July, but Ai Wei Wei is also the subject of a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum until 10 August.