Saturday, September 8, 2007

documenta XII: Ai Weiwei

If you only hear one thing about this years documenta, it's probably either the taxidermy giraffe or, more likely, Chinese celebrity artist Ai Weiwei's Template, a large structure built out of worn wooden doors and window frames from Ming- and Qing-dynasty Chinese temples. So I may as well start there. The high profile of Ai's documenta contribution has a lot to do with the fact that, shortly after Kassel inspectors deemed it structurally unsound, a gust of wind demolished it. Still on display outside the Aue Pavilion, and much to the eyerolls of many a German, the artist announced his enthusiasm for the mishap, declaring it more beautiful than before. A remix by fate, if you will. Appropriate enough, considering that just last year he described the recent history of China as one of “disasters and contradictions.”

You're less like to hear about the 1,001 Ming-/Qing-dynasty wooden chairs he's distributed in rings and rows throughout documenta. Here weary visitors can take a break or discuss the things they've seen, but the chairs also represent something else, tied to his Fairytale project. See, Ai had 1,001 Chinese citizens flown to Kassel, all dressed in matching clothes and carrying matching luggage. Sleeping in a former factory space, these “commissioned” visitors have been wandering Kassel and documenta for the duration of the show. On documenta's website you can read a little bit about the experiences of a few of the visitors.

Philip Tinari writes in the Summer 2007 issue of Artforum (in the article from which I'm cribbing most everything written in this post, by the way),


Though it's the amusing media event surrounding the collapsed Template that's made Ai's name synonymous with documenta XII, it's his Fairytale project that is wholly consumed with the very questions this year's documenta organizers set out to explore. Ai's work is concerned with the role of modernism (admittedly, a helplessly vague word) not so much in the museum or the gallery, but in day-to-day life. This is modernism not as form or method, but lifestyle. There are hundreds of bones to pick here, but one stands out especially (and probably deliberately): what to make of naming the project “Fairytale”?

In time, Fairytale will doubtless evolve into a couple documentary photographs and a few paragraphs of text in some exhibition catalogs, but Ai and documenta hope that maybe for 1,001 Chinese people, and for an entire German city, it will endure as something more. And although this is kind of a corny place to end this post, I'm sitting outside using the University's free WiFi, and I think its going to rain shortly. Also, the ducks here are getting sort of bold.

2 comments:

Mark said...

This photo may been seen as an 'Ai for an eye'-sore; but I agree that sand kessels are meant to be blown down and washed away. It actually sounds like a very dramatic piece of interactive art with that cast of thousands.
Aside: I followed your lead into the films by that Aki guy, and got 'Man without a Past' from the library, and just watched it... intriguing, dry humor, probably hard to translate the tone into yellow dialogue lines; but definitley liked it.

Chris Burkhalter said...

Ah! Super excited to hear you watched that! Yes, very very dry humor, but humor mined from what's almost an excess of pathos. I totally love that movie!