Being a controversial artist who attractively blends the aesthetics of contemporary art with the art of social politics, Ai Weiwei’s first major exhibition in Greece brings up his moral concerns about the refugee crisis in Europe.
After Spending the past few months documenting the plight of the refugees, Ai opened a new exhibition on 20 May at the Museum of Cycladic Art, entitled “Ai Weiwei at Cycladic”, to include a survey of some significant artworks of the artist but also unveils new ones aiming to trigger the alarms bells over the evident risks of the humanitarian disaster. It is also his first show presented at an archaeological museum and was inspired by the institution’s renowned permanent collection creating a new marble sculpture called the Standing Figure (2016).
As an artist who is fascinated by the art of the past in order to create new pieces, Ai often uses materials which are culturally associated with art practices of a geographical region. Many of his artworks merge traditional crafts with modern practices allying past and present in one. The Museum of Cycladic Art is devoted to protecting and promoting the ancient culture of the Cycladic art of the third millennium BC. Given that, the museum asks the Chinese artist to develop an artistic dialogue with its audience taking into account the cultural wealth of the Greek art and stating socio-political messages through the art.
While underlining his admiration for the Greek cultural practices, Ai created a seven-foot tall marble statue,Standing Figure (2016), which is not only reminiscent of the Cycladic marble statues but also an evident reference to a well known photo series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) incorporating his own cultural memories and aesthetic style. Particularly, instead of creating smaller scale minimal figurines with crossed hands at the chest based on the Cycladic models, the artist unorthodoxly made a life-sized sculpture with hands wide apart. This new stunning sculpture fuses cultural references from China and Greece highlighting the controversies of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as well as the the refugee’s humanitarian crisis in Greece.
Alongside the artist’s new artefacts, two more iconic pieces complete Ai Weiwei’s serious concern and commitment to refugees’ drama by creating marble rubber lifebuoy rings of which thousands of Syrians wore while crossing the sea from Turkey. Although the marble life-jackets, Tyre (2016), seem to have a minor aesthetic impact as art objects, they symbolise life and death. The second exclusively new piece was a series of three Flags (Greece, EU, Shadow) (2016) outside of the museum’s emblematic building in which the colour has changed and turned into a yellow/golden shade artistically reminiscent of the emergency thermal blankets. What is noteworthy here is the Shadow Flag which generally reflects the number of refugees and particularly the outline of the little boy’s dead body, Alan Kurdi, who washed up dead on the Turkish coast. The rest of the exhibition includes twenty-five artworks from the rich collection of the artist such as Grapes (2014), Mask (2011), Divina Proportione (2012), Chandelier (2015), Rebar and Case (2014) and Cao (2014).
Despite the purposeful absurdity, Ai’s art is a serious and transformative attempt to retrace ordinary objects. Portraying daily aspects of life makes his art accessible for the viewer and creates an immediate connection between the objects and the viewer. On the contrary, particular requirements or a deeper understanding of the art do not distance the audience from the overall experience of this unique exhibition. In view until October 2016, the exhibition offers a viewing pleasure for the Greek audience for taking a closer look at the art of the most high-profile artist from China and discovering one’s own meanings.
Words: Yannis Kostarias
This text was firstly published in CoBo Social:https://www.cobosocial.com/dossiers/ai-weiwei-new-show-greece-refugee-crisis/
Images: Yannis Kostarias & Museum of Cycladic Art, with courtesy of Ai Weiwei