By Antonio Sanchez Solis
Vienna, Mar 15 (EFE).- Corruption, authoritarianism, refugees, rights … The wide range of issues that occupy and preoccupy Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei are all featured in Vienna in a big retrospective exhibition, just at a time at which, as he himself admits, Russia’s “unacceptable” invasion of Ukraine once again brings humanity face to face with uncertainty.
“There is a lot of irrationality. The invasion is unacceptable, the war is not acceptable. It’s a tragedy, it’s a shame for the 21st century that we still have people and governments trying to achieve their own agenda by sacrificing the lives of everyone and making people suffer,” the artist said during the presentation of his show on Tuesday.
“In search of humanity” is the title of the journey that the Albertina Modern Gallery is hosting starting Tuesday via the social networks and which can also be visited in person from Wednesday until next September “The title of the exposition should be ‘defending humanity,'” said Ai regarding the retrospective that he defined as “critical, radical and realist.”
“The exposition opens at a time when there are more than two million refugees in Europe, Russia has invaded Ukraine and we are in the middle of the unknown and uncertainty,” he told media outlets in Vienna.
The present moment is one, he warned, when the principles of democracy and freedom are wobbling and when he fears that things could spiral into “an even greater crisis” in which the very existence of humanity is in danger.
The exposition covers practically Ai’s entire career exploring vital experiences that have defined his work and his stance in defense of human rights and against authoritarianism.
The Albertina Modern has gathered together almost 150 works – including photos, paintings, sculptures and videocreations – in an exhibit that, as the artist said on Tuesday, deals with his career more broadly than any other to date.
Visitors will find, for example, photographs taken in New York during the 1980s, where Ai at age 24 documented political struggles and social protests, and it highlights an essential principle in his later life and work: the ability of each individual to improve reality through his or her actions.
Among the early pieces is the 1995 series of three photos, when he returned to China, in which he is shown dropping and breaking an ancient Han Dynasty vase in a controversial and subversive protest against Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
The 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, when the Chinese government brutally suppressed the mass protests in which people demanded political freedoms and economic improvements, profoundly marked his work.
In his long photo series “Studies of Perspectives,” Ai is brandishing his middle finger at the centers and symbols of power – although never to people – ranging from the White House to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Eiffel Tower and even the Mona Lisa, in an act of rejection including his neon sign reading “F—.”
The exposition also includes his montages of bicycles heaped together such that they lose their function and symbolize both the jump from a poor China to an economic power and the idea that his country’s society – as a people, coordinated and synchronized – suffers from immobility when one views it on the level of the individual.
An enormous snake, made with school bookbags, recalled the thousands of children who died in the 2008 earthquake in Szechuan due to the collapse of poorly constructed school buildings, a case of Chinese corruption that Ai actively denounced.
The exposition at the Albertina Modern also recalls the almost three months in 2011 that Ai spent in a Chinese prison, with reproductions of his life in his cell, watched over by guards even when he showered, ate or slept.
When he recovered his passport in 2015, Ai went into self-exile in Europe, where he views the crisis of thousands of refugees who are fleeing from war and misery in Asia and Africa.
It’s a humanitarian catastrophe that he knows firsthand from visiting the refugee camps and to which he reacts both as an artist and activist, with works of art and several documentaries, including “Human Flow,” about how a person becomes a refugee.
The impressive “pillar of porcelain” where he tells the story of war, flight and death in the Mediterranean using traditional Chinese ceramic technique, his photo series and his montages with life jackets worn by those crossing the ocean are examples of this phase in his work that is on display in Vienna.
The retrospective extends up through Ai’s latest work, which deals with the lockdown the Chinese regime imposed in January 2019 on the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.