Ai Weiwei is one of the most important contemporary artists operating today so it’s quite the coup for Kettle’s Yard to be hosting an exhibition of his work — though of course, it helps that Ai now lives in Cambridge so is close by.
Ever political this show is about what the truth really is, given we now live in world of fakes news and disinformation — as always with his work, it’s dealing with important contemporary issues.
To illustrate how authenticity differs between the West and the East he has displayed ancient Chinese artworks bought at auction next to his own works, commissioned to mimic the older works such as a vase with a dragon on it that is based on a centuries old artefact but was made recently.
It’s a recognition that while we may consider these ‘fakes’ there is burgeoning market for craftspersons who make these imitation vases and it keeps plenty of people in jobs in industries like ceramics that have suffered decreased demand as China becomes more consumerist.
There are personal works too, most striking being a pair of jade handcuffs referencing the time the Chinese authorities imprisoned him. By using a material that’s associated with history and tradition, it ensures this exhibition shows us that traditions are important but they can also act as a pair of handcuffs on progression and freedom.
One of Ai’s most controversial works was when he dropped an ancient 2,000 year old Chinese vase, smashing it on the floor, caught in a series of photographs and here recreated using Lego bricks. Some think it’s brilliant for drawing attention to how China has changed as it has industrialised, forgetting its heritage, while others think such a desecration of history can never be justified.
Wherever you stand on the issue it’s clear Ai makes statements that he feels strongly about, irrespective of how its likely to go down with either his supporters or detractors — note his recent opposition to vaccine mandates and recreating the scene where a refugee toddler’s dead body washed up on a beach. I don’t support his views on the former, but it’s clear he is an artist who speaks his mind and is willing to offend those across the political spectrum on issues he feels strongly about.
Helpfully there are a lot of films and interviews with Ai upstairs for those who aren’t familiar with his work, so they can get to grips with the ideas behind his pieces.
The exhibition contains powerful works and some that miss the mark – recreating a sex toy in jade is fun but feels infantile next to more heavyweight pieces. Thematically it’s all over the place and lacks a coherent narrative, yet any chance to see Ai’s thought provoking artwork should be lapped up and even better when it’s in a free exhibition.
Ai Weiwei: The Liberty of Doubt at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge is on until 19th June. Entrance is free.
Images from top to bottom: An imitation ancient Chinese vase made in 2017. A marble Buddha bought at auction. A takeaway box made from marble. All images copyright Ai Weiwei studio.