Almanacs and Oracles

A couple of months ago there was a brief item on the TV news about how the artist Ai Weiwei had decided to depart from Germany where he’d been living for the past four or five years following his self-imposed exile from China. And while I’m not sure the story went into the precise details explaining the reasoning behind the Gerexit move, I’m pretty sure that it was something to do with how the artist had slowly become disillusioned with the country that had initially offered him such a warm and welcoming refuge. Apparently Weiwei had started to become aware of the growth of populist political forces over the period of his residence and noticed a consequential rise in signs of intolerance towards the country’s other less famous refugees and immigrants. At any rate, it seems clear that he no longer felt as comfortable as he had when he first arrived and so, while retaining a large studio in Berlin, he had decided to move himself and his family away to a country perceived to be able to offer more congenial surroundings. And where had he decided to go to? Which happy haven of greener pastures had he identified? Well, with the whole world his oyster, it’s rather pleasantly surprising to discover that, having flicked through the atlas and consulted the almanacs and oracles, the great plump man has greatly plumped for setting up, or should that be settling down, in the UK. To be more precise, he’s decided to relocate to rural Cambridgeshire where he’s doubtless installed his entourage in the kind of large leafy des res mansion that befits a man of his international artistic reputation and fabulously wealthy financial status. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re treated to a full photo spread feature of the new Weiwei household and their luxury lifestyle living arrangements as documented in the pages of Heat or OK! magazine.

I have to admit that that strikes me as being quite a curious and unexpected vote of confidence from the talented Chinaman for good old Blighty, especially as the nation struggles to come to terms with the ramifications of its own divisive Brexit decision. And it’s definitely reassuring to know that while financial institutions are shifting their HQs to other continental capitals, car manufacturers are threatening to close down their factories, hedge fund operators are betting against stirling’s survival, predictions are regularly being made about an imminent danger of food shortages and riots on the streets, the world’s most famous Conceptualist artist has shown such faith in the country. That he’s voted with his feet and flown into the open arms of our own small island’s warm embrace – well, it almost makes one proud to be British again. Although, without wishing to be unnecessarily cynical and pessimistic, it’s hard not to wonder just how long Weiwei will remain over here before perhaps having some tiny doubts about the reasonableness and integrity of our own political classes and the sincerity of some of the locals’ welcoming attitudes to visitors from abroad.


Carping aside, one really would have to be terribly mean spirited not to hope that Weiwei does finally manage to find the peace of mind that comes with the settled and secure family home that he has evidently not yet managed to achieve at any of his previous addresses. Although, I suppose, there is the argument that says it’s best for artists to suffer a bit in order to generate the grit that irritates the oyster into producing its artistic pearls. And there’s certainly a case for saying that some of Weiwei‘s most powerful and successful artistic works have been those that specifically reflected upon his appalling treatment by the oppressive authoritarian forces of the Chinese state institutions. Anyway, I expect that Weiwei has had other things on his mind recently and been busy putting up the wallpaper, laying carpets and assembling all the new flat pack furniture required to turn his house into a home. But now, having got all those boring practical matters out the way and cleared the clutter from the last of the house warming parties, he’s evidently been able to get back to thinking about his art. And so it is that his first post-relocation exhibition has now recently opened at the Lisson Gallery, where I’ve arrived after a brisk ten minute walk from Marylebone tube station.

In light of all the rambling preamble above it would be pleasing to be able to report that Weiwei is enjoying a happy honeymoon period and acknowledging the joys of living a life of peace and quiet and freedom in the bosom of the British countryside. That he’s been inspired by walking through the bosky bucolic fields and forests of the region, set up an al fresco easel and started capturing the delights of his surroundings in a series of warm and fuzzy Impressionistic landscape paintings. Or, since he is more an ideas and images man, that he’s produced a suite of works acknowledging some of the many positive and propitious aspects of his newly adopted homeland and his current comfortable situation of liberty and opportunity. That he’s perhaps created a series of editioned artefacts emblazoned with a Union Jack motif in symbolic acknowledgement of his new home country’s role in promoting democracy, suffrage and the values of decency, tolerance, modesty and self-deprecating good humour with which this country is so instantly associated throughout all the other nations of the world.

In fact, to no very great surprise, the walls of the Lisson Gallery are not covered in pretty paintings and there are no sculptural installations featuring smiling bulldogs wearing bowler hats or laughing corgis waving the English flag of St George. Well, I suppose it’s easier in general to make art that points out faults and failings and is critical of the current set of societal circumstances rather than that which cheers on the successes and celebrates situations of contented good fortune. And, to be fair to the artist, all the work on show here anyway seems to predate Weiwei‘s move, so those hoping to spot signs of new geographical inspirations or local cultural influences will have to wait for subsequent displays. In the meantime the artist is offering up works created over the past three or four years that follow three separate stylistic strands: hefty sculptural chunks of rusty cast iron lumps; 2-d pixelated pictures composed of tiny lego bricklets; and delicate wallworks made out of the twisted threads of bamboo and silk;

Largest, heaviest and, I think, least successful of these differently formatted constructions are the enormous full scale tree root hulks that have been so laboriously cast, remoulded and welded back together again. A brief video film shows the inordinately effortful process whereby the truncated trees are metamorphosed from their original organic origin in some straggly Brazilian forest locale to their new metallic fabrication, prior to being installed within the sterile conditions of a white cube art gallery setting. There seems to me to be quite a problem here, for instead of emphasising the ecological point that the artist is presumably trying to make about the danger of deforestation and the hubris of humanity’s defilement of the fruits of nature’s might and majesty (or, as the Gallery leaflet also suggests, a commentary on his own uprootedness and the feeling of dislocation he shares with other less fortunate migrants) another very different message springs to mind. And that relates to the absurdly extravagant expenditure of time and effort, energy and costs that have gone into the preparation and production, transportation and installation of this expression of artistic indulgence that seems so utterly at odds with the carefully considered self-denying frugality of personal actions and lifestyle that are surely the defining hallmarks of the the true eco-activist. That there are half a dozen of these massive multiples on display – and presumably on sale – where a single small twiglet-sized version sat on a plinth might have easily made the similar point with near equal force, suggests to me that the artist was more concerned with the potential purchases of his product by institutions wishing to have a large signature work from a large important artist, rather than any deep concern for the eco-systems of our small endangered planet.

Perhaps less open to misinterpretation, and certainly much more direct as a means of communication and a medium for the transmission of artistic ideas, are the clever plasticated mosaic constructions that Weiwei has come up with and which allow for the creation of convincing figurative imagery that carries both the suggestion of photographic accuracy as well as the suspicion of digital fakery. The potential of this new formats is quickly apparent although the artist seems to be playing with his newly discovered toy in a somewhat unfocussed haphazard fashion, unsure how to make best use of its obvious possibilities. At least, that seems to be the case judging by how he’s applied it in this show to recreate an assortment of broadbrush commentaries that include references, both direct and oblique, to the Mueller report, migrant boat journeys, Tiananmen Square and a couple of colourful self-portraits.

As for the final set of Weiwei works – muralistic collages of images made from wood and paper that remind me of the kind of balsa and tissue kits that some smart kids and other sad adults would turn into toy aeroplanes – well, these seem comparatively lightweight in both senses of the word. As far as I could make out, amongst the component parts there seemed to be a flying man, a combination of cloud formations, various wings, an inundation of hands, all with their middle finger extended in greeting, and a copy of the famously iconic Tatlin Tower. What this all means I’m not at all sure but maybe these are just some of the elements that drift through the mind of Weiwei when he sleeps and dreams of his life as a Chinese Flying Dutchman enjoying temporary residence in the UK. For all the problematical aspects that some of his artworks churn up, I nevertheless rather hope he stays here a while.

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