The work of artist, activist and humanist Ai Weiwei is conceptually layered. An initial viewing offers an appreciation for the pure beauty of the work. But a closer look reveals a deeper symbolism that gives insight into the artist’s intriguing life and political commentary.
Consider Ai Weiwei’s fascination with porcelain, which unfolds throughout the exhibition Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State. The artist’s passion for the ancient art of porcelain—whose history spans two millennia—derives from a deep commitment to his Chinese heritage and its time-honored traditions. China is credited with the invention of porcelain, which is why dishes are called “fine China.” The city of Jingdezhen became (and remains) a center of porcelain production because it had an abundance of the raw material needed to make porcelain and proximity to a river that facilitated its transport.
Artists often rely on the abilities and art of others during the creation process. Many of the porcelain pieces in this exhibition are collaborative, with Ai Weiwei actually working alongside experienced Chinese craftspeople. Their connection and kinship is significant: the artist believes strongly in employing artisan talent and keeping these historical skilled trades alive.
Ai Weiwei reveres porcelain as one the oldest materials created by humankind, yet an enduring modern symbol. He challenges viewers to see the world differently, transforming everyday objects in innovative ways. “It’s interesting to think about porcelain as utilitarian—works look like jars, vases, plates and cubes,” says Joseph Becherer, Meijer Gardens Chief Curator and Vice President, Collections and Exhibitions. “What’s astounding here is the scale and detail. Ai Weiwei pushes the boundaries of traditional porcelain artisanship to see how grand and perfect a form can be in a size and proportion that are not anticipated.”
The diversity, detail and authenticity are remarkable when one examines Ai Weiwei’s porcelain work more closely. Viewers will be captivated by the gifted craftsmanship required to create these works.
At more than seven feet tall, Pillar appears quiet and stately in the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory. This colossal column exemplifies Ai Weiwei’s use of grand scale with porcelain. High above the paved paths of the conservatory, it emerges from the lush greenery in a perfectly natural ascension. The smooth form is familiar. But the dimension is unprecedented for porcelain, showing expert craftsmanship and daring in the creation and firing process.
Contrast that with Tofu. Nestled into the tropical plants at ground level, Tofu is flat and square like the edible bean curd, but has an exaggerated proportion many times bigger than an actual piece of the food. Dig deeper and this sculpture makes a political statement, as the Chinese word for tofu is synonymous with poor quality and shoddy architecture—schools that collapsed in the grievous 2008 Sichuan earthquake were called “tofu-dregs” constructions. The collapse of those buildings took the lives of thousands of children.
Porcelain is an ideal medium for replicating the intricacies of the natural world, shown beautifully and meticulously in Blossom. Composed of hundreds of handcrafted flowers, this monumental work was created with accomplished craftspeople and offers a reflection on skilled labor and mass production in an age of globalization. It’s one of several of Ai Weiwei’s works that show individual forms coming together in a larger creative force, in this case, an expansive garden bed of blooming flowers, frozen in time.
In contrast to the serene Blossom is the unsettling He Xie, which features 1,000 river crabs, each painstakingly created in porcelain. The visual impact is striking, the individuality and lifelike appearance taking the viewer by surprise. The phrase “he xie” has come to mean internet censorship in China. After Chinese officials demolished his studio, the artist served thousands of river crabs to his supporters in an act of defiance. Under house arrest, he was unable to attend the feast.
The haunting work entitled Remains exemplifies how Ai Weiwei tests the possibilities of porcelain. The sobering likeness to human bones is so authentic that it seems impossible these works are crafted in porcelain. The high level of artistry makes Remains a deeply moving work, reminding the viewer of tragedies across the world where human rights were violated, including Chinese labor camps where Ai Weiwei and his family were confined.
Porcelain Rebar connotes tragedy as well, in a culmination of 20 porcelain pieces crafted into what appears to be rebar, the most frequently used element to reinforce concrete construction. This series of tangled, misshaped rebar is another nod to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 70,000 people. Porcelain Rebar reminds us that life, like porcelain, is infinitely fragile.
Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State January 27—August 20, 2017