ISTANBUL—The biggest gift this year for politicos, civil rights activists, art lovers and ceramophiles is the definitive Ai Weiwei on Porcelain on view at the Sabancı University Sakıp Sabancı Museum (Istanbul, September 1- January 28, 2018). It is Ai Weiwei’s first exhibition in Turkey.
It showcases an extensive selection from the artist’s wide-ranging production in the medium of porcelain (and in earthenware Han dynasty “found” objects). The narrative is informed by the artist’s life story and both the tradition of craftsmanship and art history in China. It’s massive, over 100 works, many multiples in themselves, and most of which have already been featured in Cfile (click here to see all previous posts). The show is powerful, discomforting, sober, joyous at times and when it needs be, outright funny.
Nazan Ölçer, the director of the Sakip Sabanci Museum says the idea to do an exhibition focusing on Ai’s porcelain came during a visit to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, where she was formerly the director:
“In March 2016 Ai Weiwei came to visit Turkey’s refugee camps, and while in Istanbul he visited me at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum. The next day we met up to visit the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, where I worked for many years, and this was the first step in the birth of this exhibition.”
At the museum Ai saw porcelain pieces produced as a result of the first encounter between Chinese and Ottoman craftsmen. “His face lit up like a young child,” Ölçer recalls. “This was something that was familiar to Weiwei. Everything became clear—porcelain was the answer.”
Then there is the venue, troubled contemporary Turkey.
Ai is not unaware that Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, is on route to becoming the dictator of Turkey, redefining democracy ever downwards. His assault on thinkers, writers and artists has been massive.
5,000 academics have already been dismissed following July’s failed army coup. This “intellectual massacre” has hit all faculties at some of Turkey’s best universities from physics and biology to drama, politics and art, chilling teachers and students alike. Then there is Turkey’s ill-disguised war against the Kurds both in and outside the country.
Ai wisely skirts these issue to make another point but like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, it remains in the room and skulks massively in the shadows. He makes the main presentation of his exhibition about the refugee crisis, or as he argues, “There’s no refugee crisis, but only human crisis… in dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values. In this time of uncertainty, we need more tolerance, compassion and trust for each other since we all are one. otherwise, humanity will face an even bigger crisis.”
Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, 80 million people and have welcomed more than three million Syrian refugees. This is one of the few areas of human rights that Turkey has handled relatively well.
The centerpiece of Ai’s On Porcelain, is a vast new wallpaper piece Odyssey (2016) that as Art Newspaper points out:
[It] draws on Ancient friezes, which were sometimes crafted in terracotta. Installed from floor to ceiling in one gallery, the wallpaper depicts different traumas experienced by refugees: flight from war-torn countries, the crossing of treacherous oceans, or huddled together in tents in camps surrounded by barbed wire. Several new works—blue-and-white vases stacked to resemble Classical columns—populate the gallery. As the reference to Homer’s epic poem makes clear, the current refugee crisis is not the first exodus in history. Nor is it likely to be the last.
Ai’s growing obsession with refugees has become a deep passion, perhaps his deepest, which is saying something. His first step was not well received, posed lying on a beach and recreating the viral photograph of a child Alan Kurdi whose body washed up on a beach near the Turkish town of Bodrum in September, 2015. Many found it in poor taste and exploitive. This may have seemed insensitive but Ai’s commitment was deep and sincere:
I have been producing a documentary on the refugee crisis. I have traveled to over ten different countries across several continents, having visited dozens of refugee camps. I have interviewed refugees and others involved, such as local politicians and NGOs. The refugee crisis has a much broader context. There are different histories, regional and religious conflicts, economic pressures, and environmental crises that have contributed to what we understand to be the refugee crisis. My team and I studied this, beginning with the earliest human movements, stretching back to the Old Testament. With the wallpaper, specifically, we tried to come up with a visual language directly inspired by drawings found in early Greek and Egyptian carvings, pottery, and wall paintings. Within that context, we integrated the new conflicts, with images found on social media and the Internet, as well as images from my own involvement.
Since the photograph appeared there have been exhibitions or interventions in many cities about the crisis and have produced the artist’s most profound, visually compelling art to date. Ai Weiwei: Laundromat at Deitch Projects (New York, November 5, December 23, 2016) an installation. Consisted of 2,046 clothing items that he laundered and mended, restoring human dignity in a symbolic way, signifying recovery and redemption.
The clothes were all left behind in a refugee camp in Idomeni, Macadonia, “Trucks came in and loaded these items up to take towards the landfill,”Ai writes, “I decided to see if we could buy or collect them so they would not be destroyed.
In January 2017, Ai Weiwei tied over 14,000 life jackets together, hanging them the columns of the Berlin Konzerthaus entrance. The jackets were harvested in Lesbos or Lesvos, a Greek island and middle point between Turkey and Europe for those Syrian refugees fleeing from their homeland on their way to Europe.
In Italy he staged a walk-on “research” project, Odyssey: A Project by Ai Weiwei (Palermo, April 23 – June 20 2017) housed in a huge exhibition space, papering about around 1400m2 of floor space. The iconographic motif for the wallpaper is made from a combination of images taken from social media and materials collected by the artist during the course of his visits to refugee camps, and it has been organized based on the graphic and stylistic elements from ancient Greece and Egypt.
Black-and-white figures appear juxtaposed, in the style of ancient Greek pottery, but posed to represent the 21st century political realities of militarization, migration and escape. The dialogue between the didactic aspect ceramic iconography and visual overkill, the huge quantity and speed of images in contemporary life, creates a collective, historical memory.
At the same time Ai’s sought a visual language inspired by drawings found in early Greek and Egyptian carvings, pottery, and wall paintings:
Within that context, we integrated the new conflicts, with images found on social media and the Internet, as well as images from my own involvement. Beyond the images, we also examined literature and the political conditions of the various periods. It took more than half a year to finish the drawing and it relates to six themes: war, the ruins resulting from war, the journey undertaken by the refugees, the crossing of the sea, the refugee camps, and the demonstrations and protests.
The exhibition Ai Weiwei: Law of the Journey, on view at the National Gallery of Prague, Veletržní palác, Dukelských hrdinů 47, (Prague, March 17, 2017–July 1, 2018) is grounded in an Austrian proposal to cut European Union subsidies to member states that refuse to participate in the EU’s refugee relocation program. The Czech Republic has been reluctant. So along comes Ai.
It is an ominous, harrowing piece, posited uneasily between threat and rescue, beautiful yet brutal. Black faceless figures are threatening on one hand (they have a Darth Vader blow-up doll presence) but vulnerable on another hand because their “life” can so easily be punctured and deflated.
A critic (unnamed) writing in Juxtapoz explains explores this aura of dread:
Hosted in a building of symbolic historical charge – a former 1928 Trade Fair Palace which in 1939–1941 served as an assembly point for Jews before their deportation to the concentration camp in Terezín, Czechoslvakia – it works as a site-specific parable, a form of (public) speech, carrying a transgressive power of cathartic experience, but also a rhetoric of failure, paradox and resignation.
Like Noah’s Ark, a monumental rubber boat is a contemporary vessel of forced exodus, floating hopelessly within the immense, oceanic abyss of the Gallery’s post-industrial, cathedral-like Big Hall. Set for a journey across the unknown and the infinite, an overcrowded life raft carries ‘the vanguard of their people’, as Hannah Arendt described the illegal and the stateless in her seminal 1943 essay, “We Refugees”: over 300 figures, squeezed within the confines of a temporary shelter, undertake a journey ‘far out into the un-navigated’, fleeing violence and danger.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Ai Weiwei’s work over the past year and his latest exhibition in Istanbul. Read Part 2 below:
Do you love or loathe this essay on Ai Weiwei from the world of contemporary ceramic art and contemporary ceramics? Share your thoughts in the comments below.