'On the Table' kicks off with the American Ai Weiwei. The Chinese artist arrived in New York in 1981, fleeing the politics of Deng Xiaoping, following the Beijing Spring, and stayed until 1993. During that time he photographed black-and-white triptychs of his life in America, surrounded by other artists of the Chinese diaspora and intellectuals of the time, including poet Allen Ginsberg. Ai took shots of himself imitating Andy Warhol, and created works inspired by Duchamp and his 'readymades'; he also paid tribute to the Dadaist artist in a work that incorporates the famous sunflower seed – an element that formerly accompanied portraits of Mao and symbolised warmth and human compassion, and which Ai would incorporate later in his big display at the Tate Modern.
The son of the famous poet Ai Qing (himself exiled by Mao Tse-tun) returned to his country in 1993. Befor eleaving Ai Weiwei had helped found the Chinese experiemental group Starsthat challengedthe orthodoxy of theCommunist Party,and theuponhis returnset out to go deeper into the alternativeart sceneinChina.During this time Ai created theBlackCoverBookandphotographs that capturehis encounterswithintellectuals, musicians, poets,artistsand activists.
Ai Weiwei is a master of the double entendre, of challenging the established order, of giving the finger to those in power, and with 'Cao' he does just that. Inside the hall lined with a decorative paper of arms in movement – a bit reminiscent of the cinematic future and of gammadion crosses – lies a marble installation that represents grass. Not only does Ai take advantage of something 'fake' to re-create the tenderness of nature with this minimalist and cold stone, but it also looks like multiple middle fingers throughout the room. He also uses the word 'cao', which means 'grass' in Japanese but is a homophone of the word 'fuck' in English. Ai is also a master of expletives.
Memory and consumerism are two recurring themes in Ai Weiwei's works. He is a collector of ceramic pieces, furniture and even fragments of Ancient Chinese temples. His actions of breaking porcelain pieces are well-known – and would be the seend for 'Drop a Dynasty Urn' – as are his customised pieces. This is what a Neolithic ceramic work from the Han Dynasty looks like with the Coca-Cola logo painted on it.
For six years (1995-2011), the activist Ai Weiwei travelled around giving the finger to big symbols of power in the East and West alike, and documenting them. He flipped off the Valle de los Caídos, the 'Mona Lisa', London's Tate Modern, the Sagrada Família, the Reichstag, the Vatican's San Pedro and the White House, among others. A look, a gesture and subversion are frozen in the photos that help weave the outlook of a dissident who, don't forget, hasn't been allowed to leave China since 2011.
Maps also have a special place in Ai's work. In 2009, to denounce the lack of political objectives, he built a world map from thousands of pieces of cotton (and not at random – Ai was pointing out that China supplies the planet with resources, and in particular is the world's principal cotton provider). He has also represented China with cans of dried milk for infants, a way of protesting against the death of babies poisoned by ingesting spoilt milk, and with pieces of wood that had been part of the temples of the Qing Dynasty. Memory and recognition of crafts come together in this geopolitical piece.
In 2003 Ai Weiwei founded his study of design and architecture, and Fake Design Studio was his first construction project, set up in the rural neighbourhoods of Beijing, which was then 'reoccupied' by galleries and spaces for creation. He also worked with Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the National Stadium in Beijing, the 'Bird's Nest', created to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The work was a game of opposites for which the structure acquired notoriety outside the venue.
In 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale hit the Sichuan province. Ai Weiwei began a campaign to count the number of children killed – he published a list of 5,196 victims on his blog – and to prevent the Chinese government from hiding the tragedy caused by the appalling construction of school buildings. The artist had wanted to testify on behalf of environmental activist Tan Zouren in 2009, but the police stopped him, and Ai later suffered a brain hemorrhage attributed to the blows he received when he was detained. This 'selfie' is evidence of this feeling of threat and assault suffered by Ai, who in 2011 would be arrested by the Chinese authorities.
Ai Weiwei has taken on the task of showing the absurdities of Chinese politics, and one example is 'He Xie', a cargo load of thousands of porcelain river crabs stacked in the same way as Ai's famous sunflower seeds. In 2010, Ai received an architectural commission from the municipal authorities, but when the work was ready it was declared illegal by the government. The artist's response was a massive party that 3,000 of his Twitter followers showed up for. The party went on but the artist was under house arrest and could only be there via an online hookup. Everyone else feasted on thousands of river crabs.
Ai Weiwei is a much sought-after artist at the moment, despite having been confined to living in China since 2011. Known for his political activism, the son of the poet Ai Qing has openly positioned himself against the Chinese regime and has taken his dissent to the art world in the form of large installations that have been shown in museums around the world. For the Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Ai Weiwei himself has designed 'On the Table', an exhibition conceived as a retrospective that zooms in on various moments of the artist's career as he's worked with photography, sculpture, video and architecture. He says his favourite word is 'action', and that he needs to take pictures like he needs air to breathe (check him out on Instagram, where he's quite active). 'Liberty is about our rights to question everything,' he has said. Before you head to the Virreina and see for yourself, we've put together a sampler of the artist's work to whet your appetite.