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PUBLIC ART
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PUBLIC ART presents Ai Weiwei’s large-scale, public installations exhibited across the world.

Quotes:
I think of every attempt I make as a wish to open a door.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Video edited by:
Gui Nuo

Music Credit:
Jens Bjørnkjær

Artworks:
Circle of Animals, 2009-2010
Iron Tree, 2009
Forever Bicycles, 2012
Tree, 2015
Gilded Cage, 2017
Arch, 2017
Circle Fence, 2017

Public Art

Circle of Animals, (2009-2010) Internationally acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has reinterpreted the twelve bronze animal heads representing the traditional Chinese zodiac that once adorned the famed fountain-clock of the Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing. Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads is the artist’s first major public sculpture project. Designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits serving in the court of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, the twelve zodiac animal heads originally functioned as a water clock-fountain, which was sited in the magnificent European-style gardens of the Yuanming Yuan. In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were pillaged. In re-interpreting these objects on an oversized scale, Ai Weiwei focuses attention on questions of looting and repatriation, while extending his ongoing exploration of the ‘fake’ and the copy in relation to the original.

Iron Tree (2009) Since 2009, Ai Weiwei has created a series of monumental sculptures of trees. Ai arranged parts of dead trees (roots, trunks, branches) from different species collected from mountain areas around southern China to look like new, artificial trees. In the local area around Jingdezhen, local vendors sell dry wood and tree trunks are appreciated for their interesting shape, in the tradition of Chinese scholars’ rocks. For Iron Tree, Ai cast different tree parts in iron and joined together with screws and bolts.

Forever Bicycles (2012) The bicycle is one of the few objects every household had when I was growing up. Society back then was very poor. To have a bike was a luxury. Forever bicycles were the best brand at the time. If a family had a Forever bicycle, it would be the most admirable for the rest of the children. They would even run after the bicycle. It is durable and practical. Built-strong for the country road. Today, since I started doing architecture and teaching students how to build, I use the bicycle to teach them they can build with any material, not just bricks and concrete. That’s how it started. I think it’s interesting to use a ready-made. You can recall Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. I use this ready-made which is something the whole society is familiar with. Even today in rich nations biking is a form of exercise and is very popular. It’s related to people. In China, this is changing. More cars are on the road and the air is getting increasingly polluted. There are many aspects to the bicycle.

Gilded Cage, (2017) – Ai often visited Washington Square Park when he lived nearby in the 1980s, drawn to its vitality as a hub for creative and political expression. His 37-foot-tall steel cage echoes the iconic form of the marble arch, which commemorates George Washington leading the nation toward democracy. While seeming to create an obstruction, Ai opens a passageway through its center in the silhouette of two united figures. Visitors are able to pass through, reflected in an undulating ribbon of polished stainless steel. Their outline takes its form from Marcel Duchamp’s 1937 Door for Gradiva, created to frame the entrance to Andre Breton’s art gallery in Paris. This is fitting reference to the immigrant conceptual artist since Duchamp used to play chess in Washington Square Park, and once notoriously made his way to the top of the park’s arch with a group of other bohemian poets and artists. There, they spread out blankets, hung Chinese lanterns, tied red balloons to the arch’s parapet, declaring it the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square,” and conversed and caroused until dawn. This subtle homage to Duchamp highlights how influential he has been for Ai, who also often appropriates existing forms and materials to make his artworks. It is also a fitting tribute to the figure who has had an enormous impact on many immigrant artists in the years since, who have in turn made New York the hub of world culture that it is today.

Arch, (2017) – Ai often visited Washington Square Park when he lived nearby in the 1980s, drawn to its vitality as a hub for creative and political expression. His 37-foot-tall steel cage echoes the iconic form of the marble arch, which commemorates George Washington leading the nation toward democracy. While seeming to create an obstruction, Ai opens a passageway through its center in the silhouette of two united figures. Visitors are able to pass through, reflected in an undulating ribbon of polished stainless steel. Their outline takes its form from Marcel Duchamp’s 1937 Door for Gradiva, created to frame the entrance to Andre Breton’s art gallery in Paris. This is fitting reference to the immigrant conceptual artist since Duchamp used to play chess in Washington Square Park, and once notoriously made his way to the top of the park’s arch with a group of other bohemian poets and artists. There, they spread out blankets, hung Chinese lanterns, tied red balloons to the arch’s parapet, declaring it the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square,” and conversed and caroused until dawn. This subtle homage to Duchamp highlights how influential he has been for Ai, who also often appropriates existing forms and materials to make his artworks. It is also a fitting tribute to the figure who has had an enormous impact on many immigrant artists in the years since, who have in turn made New York the hub of world culture that it is today.

Circle Fence (2017) Since the 19th century, successive waves of immigrants have settled on the Lower East Side. Many who landed at Ellis Island made it their home. Throughout the city, lamppost banners portray those arrivals, as well as notable exiles and contemporary refugees. Works that combine images and texts about the conditions and experiences of refugees replace bus shelter advertisements. Also in this historic neighbourhood, a narrative series at Essex Street Market depicts refugees’ epic journeys, while fence installations at 189 Chrystie Street and 248 Bowery appear unexpectedly, spanning rooftops between buildings. 7th Street Fence is located on 48 East 7th Street in the East Village, the same street where, in the 1980s, Ai Weiwei lived in a basement apartment when he was a student and immigrant. This fence fills the space between two buildings.

Tree (2010) is a monumental sculpture assembled from the dry, dead branches, roots and trunks of numerous species of tree, such as camphor, cedar and ginkgo, that Ai Weiwei gathered from across the mountainous southern region of his native China. The sculpture mimics the form of a real tree, although the cuts and joins are left visible, highlighting the different types of bark. Although it is a unique work, there are fifteen similar sculptures with the same title dating from 2009 onwards, all of which are smaller in size and which can each be exhibited either inside or outdoors […] Tree celebrates an indigenous Chinese custom, typical of the markets in and around the town of Jingdezhen in the northeastern Jiangxi province, in which vendors sell distinctive tree trunks, branches and curiously shaped roots as objects to be appreciated and displayed in the home. Ai visited Jingdezhen while working on his installation Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) (Tate T13408) for the 2010 Unilever Commission at Tate Modern, London. Tree also evokes traditional Chinese Zen gardens, sites for contemplation and retreat associated with Buddhism and Taoism in particular. These gardens represent the world through cycles of birth, maturity, decay, death and rebirth. They depend on an appreciation of the aesthetic and contemplative value of trees, rocks and other natural elements. In this context Tree can be read as a reference to Taoist ideal of harmony – unifying the work of man with nature as well as linking the earth and the sky.

Tree also draws attention to the conceptual relationship between material and form in sculpture. Although different trees have been reduced to their essential material and then reassembled by the artist and his assistants in a form that resembles a tree, the intention is not illusionistic. The viewer is not led to believe this is a natural living tree; rather the visible joins and changes in the work’s surface reveal its artificiality and the method of its construction. This approach can be compared with the artist’s earlier Table and Pillar 2002 (Tate T12809). In this work Ai reconfigured individual elements of a table and pillar from the Qing dynasty into a new form, denying its original function and effectively destroying a piece of antique furniture. In their new and a functional form, both sculptures exemplify the artist’s interest in the physical and aesthetic qualities of material and its transformative nature. He has emphasised the importance of ‘readymade’ materials for his art: ‘My work is always readymade. It could be cultural, political, or social, and also it could be art – to make people re-look at what we have done, its original position, to create new possibilities. I always want people to be confused, to be shocked or realize something later’ (quoted in Delson 2011, p.63).

Ai’s work often points to complex social and geopolitical issues affecting contemporary China. The dry wood of which Tree is composed draws attention to the country’s rapid urbanisation and economic growth, which have resulted in damage to the natural environment and the suppression of traditional culture. In addition, the act of bringing together numerous individual branches to create a whole can be read as symbolic of the relationship between the individual and society, a broader issue but one which has particular resonance in a Chinese context.