Ai Weiwei: Cao / Humanityby Vivian Li
UTA ARTIST SPACE (LOS ANGELES) | OCTOBER 4 – DECEMBER 1, 2018
When you enter the main gallery of Cao/Humanity, one of three solo shows of recent works by Ai Weiwei in Los Angeles this fall, it is at first glance visually underwhelming. The sculptures are cast in an austere white marble or plaster that blends into the white walls, except for a massive iron cast of a hollowed tree trunk sitting in the back, and in the front a column of stacked blue and white porcelain pots depicting scenes of the unfolding global refugee crisis.
The sparseness of the main gallery is emphasized by the centerpiece: a dense field of white and gray marble grass made up of dozens of interlocking hexagonal pieces, each topped with a few blades of grass. The other sculptures are arrayed casually around the room. The ghostly presence of all the monochrome, hard surfaces is heightened by their fragmented subjects—from a pair of disembodied shaking hands to a series of identical marble molds of doors and windows propped against the wall.
Although this grouping of cast objects demonstrates the artist’s long-standing fascination with materials and reproduction, a room full of them can feel like monuments—anonymous and easy to dismiss. But maybe that is the point, to look closely past surface meanings. The gallery’s wallpaper, Finger (2015), suggests such. The large, graphic patterns of swirls covering the white background, seen up-close, are all made up of interlaced arms drawn with each hand giving a middle finger, a gesture Ai became known for since his Study in Perspective series (1995 – 2003).
The unassuming field of marble grass also provides the name of this exhibition. Cao, or “grass” in Chinese, popularly refers to what is common and unrefined. In recent years, it also has acquired a new meaning in China as part of a humorous and absurdist word play, caonima, which can be read literally as “grass mud horse,” a mythical creature resembling an alpaca, or the profanity “fuck your mother.” Caonima became a popular meme in 2009 to frustrate and defy Internet censors and has since been embraced as a mascot by free speech activists, including Ai.
All three of Ai’s Los Angeles shows involve his expanded interests in global politics, especially in relation to the current humanitarian refugee crisis that he has been witnessing and documenting from his studio based in Berlin. Yet, unlike the other two shows that showcase his large-scale works, Cao/Humanity excels when it translates large concepts and issues into small-scale objects, particularly through their surfaces.
The show’s first of two side galleries displays a series of blue and white porcelain wares, a popular type of Chinese porcelain exported around the world for centuries, on which he introduces contemporary subjects, like in the plate Journey (2017). Rather than classical Chinese robed scholars admiring the landscape, the plate’s surface is decorated with families in traveling clothes trying to negotiate the mountainous landscape. Ai updates the traditional landscape vocabulary and material to reflect today’s relationship between humans, land, and the sea.
Another plate depicts the disturbing image of a drowned Syrian infant refugee, which Ai had received criticism for recreating in a photograph a few years ago. Here, the boy is commemorated with a solar icon appearing above him in the center of the plate and small images of constellations and waves along the plate’s border. Among the waves, Ai can be seen standing on a life boat, acting like a mast holding up a tattered sail to help navigate the turbulent waters. In the porcelain works, Ai also mixes in miniaturized versions of his own motifs, such as his multi-armed circular motif with the hands all giving the middle finger. It appears often as a decorative motif on the outside of the porcelain pieces. In this context, though, it is unclear if the iconic hand gesture of defiance is directed more at the apathy of the authorities or of the general public.
The meticulous wallpapers in each of the two side galleries are the standout works, however, that unify the show. Centering on the refugee crisis in Greece of asylum seekers from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the wallpaper Odyssey (2016) borrows the horizontal registers and black-figure appearance from the Greek pottery tradition. Ai also combines traditional imagery, like that of the ancient Greek soldier, with contemporary imagery. But rather than glorified battle scenes, the wallpaper design repeats, register after register, the cyclical nature of war and displacement—the destruction and fleeing of people from their homes, life in refugee camps, and the fight for the right to survive. Interspersed are repeated motifs, like the pieta, the solar symbol, and Ai’s circular motif of multiple arms giving the middle finger. There are also a few self-portraits of the artist, such as him listening with a crowd to a piano player playing in a refugee camp. They are flanked on either side by a group of classically robed Greek musicians and framed on top by the camp’s barbed wire.
In contrast to the somber colors and tone of Odyssey, in the last gallery of the show the wallpaper, The Animal that Looks Like a Llama But is Really an Alpaca (2015), is excessively gaudy with brash golden and metallic patterning on white background. Upon closer scrutiny, the wallpaper’s complex patterning consists of handcuffs and multiple surveillance cameras pointing at sleek birds of the Twitter bird logo as well as alpacas with the Chinese phrase “grass mud horse” written on the front of their bodies. Stark references to the surveillance and censorship of the Internet and free speech in China, these forms are all arranged in a variety of orientations and arrangements to create complex and alluring surface patterns. The flamboyant wallpaper counters the singular white marble cast of a security camera on a plinth sitting in the center of the gallery.
On the wall facing the marble security camera, various exhibition visitors are seen reading from Ai’s book, Humanity. Published this year, the small book is an edited collection of his thoughts and observations from his experiences following the international refugee crisis. Through reading his words from the passage they chose, the strangers in the video are given voice to also speak out and participate. The international scrutiny of the refugees and their humanity is for Ai clearly personal. In the wallpaper, his obscure profile is sometimes seen in the reflective surfaces of the birds in the pattern, in allusion to his lifetime of government surveillance and scrutiny while in China. In this final gallery of the show filled with surveillance cameras watching, Ai leaves us wondering if there is anybody listening.
VIVIAN LI is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.