Tuesday, November 24, 2009

1989: A year like any other? - Ai Wei wei in Munich

At the Haus der Kunst, a stark museum built by the Nazis in Munich, is a remarkable exhibition by the Chinese artist Ai Wei wei.  He was the original inspiration behind the Bird’s Nest Beijing Olympic Stadium, though he abandoned the commission.  He is one of the most influential artists in the world because he brings his unique, personal, shocking and sometimes heart-rending vision to the contemporary destruction, as he sees it, of Chinese traditions and culture.   His most famous art work is three photos of himself dropping – and smashing – a Han dynasty urn.  In the Munich exhibition that sense of wanton destruction, of its traumatic effect, is shown in a collection of Neolithic pots which have been simply and brightly painted in colours you could see in Ikea – the modern simply effacing and destroying the ancient without, as it were, a backward look.

His vision of destruction, sadness, loss and memory took on a particularly poignant turn when he got involved in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.  He visited the site of schools which had collapsed killing all the pupils. All that remained of the children were their plastic backpacks. So, for the Munich show, he made a gigantic plastic cover for the whole gallery with a quote from one of the parents about the death of their child. The whole piece is made of schoolchildren’s plastic backpacks stitched together.  In the same way some of the wooden sculptures in the exhibition are made of wood salvaged from ancient temples that have been demolished. Or they are traditional wooden Chinese furniture cut in half, or with a great log through it.  All these works give a powerful feeling of how history in China has suddenly accelerated, memory can hardly keep up and everywhere there is a feeling of the traditional being ruptured and disappearing.  Those feelings of sadness and loss can exist alongside a sense of delight and wonder at what China is achieving.  The reflective self-consciousness about what we are losing and what we are gaining all the time is most of what makes us human.

And how important these themes of loss and change are so significant at the time of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.  I went to a debate about human rights between Bianca Jagger, who is now a fabulously glamorous and intensely serious campaigner against human rights violations, Helena Waldmann, a a ground-breaking German choreographer who had worked with Iranian and Palestinian women and Yang Lian, a Chinese poet who now lives in London.  Involving a Chinese poet with personal memories of the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a stroke of genius because it reminded us that, although 1989 felt like a year of opening and freedom in Europe (even with the many subsequent doubts and regrets), for some, as Yang Lian wrote in one of his poems, 1989 was ‘a year like any other’.


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