Food is a recurring theme in this artist’s portfolio, and last Sunday, when a friend and I visited the Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace, we were treated to a feast for the mind. It was the second time I had visited an exhibition by this artist, whom I had shunned when I realised he smashed up ancient vases and hacked up ancient furniture to make his point. No matter how popular he had become in Britain, I was still adamantly against his work. For those who don’t know, Ai Weiwei is probably the most well-known Chinese artist in the West right now, but he is not well-known in China, partly due to his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government and his trial and conviction for tax evasion. He was first known in China for being the son of a renowned poet, rose to international fame by helping to design the Olympics Bird’s Nest Stadium, and first gained popularity in the UK with his ‘Sunflower Seeds’ display in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in London in 2010. I have visited both stadium and seeds, but this is the first exhibition that has made me begin to see why some see him as a credible artist.
Like the ‘Sunflower Seeds’, which the artist revealed alluded on the one hand to Mao’s famine, on the other to the internet users of China being trodden underfoot by the censors, the pieces of art displayed throughout the palace also seemed to comment on society’s ills through foodstuffs. I say ‘seemed’ because there were neither leaflets nor information panels. We had to provide an explanation for the works ourselves, and also spot the difference in the rooms or else walk past an Ai Weiwei masterpiece. This almost happened in the banqueting hall, where gilded animal heads placed in a line suited the splendour of the room so well that we only realised that they were not part of the original decor when we realised that they resembled the twelve Chinese zodiac animals.
The obviously food related pieces were a porcelain watermelon and a porcelain barrel chair that seemed to be made out of glutinous rice. There was also a pair of vases, one with the Coca Cola logo on it and the other with the phrase cào ní mā (草泥马, ‘fuck your mother’), written as one word. The wonder of pinyin is that without the characters the phrase may take on other meanings, and in this , case it could also mean ‘grass mud horse’, the internet substitute for the insulting phrase which helps to keep subversive comments under the censors’ radar. We thought that the pun was apt as many were probably walking past with no idea of the meaning of the word. But we ourselves also missed the point; it was only later that I found out that the vases were precious Han-dynasty antiques and can now appreciate the irony of a brand detracting rather than adding value to a product.
Most pieces were great talking points, but these were our three favourites:
We spent a long time trying to figure out what this represented at the primary level. Our first guess was ‘fungal and vegetal forms’, but if when we stopped scrutinising it from different angles and just looked down from above it became apparent that they were organs, with recognisable lungs and heart – we had no idea what the long tendril-like part represented. Since it seemingly rested on a bed of grain we reckoned that it must either be hollow or have some sort of support concealed underneath the pile of grain. If hollow, we thought, then it was ironic that the organs were empty though they are surrounded by what can be converted into fuel. The setting of the art in a sink also seemed to hint at food waste by association with water waste. Actually, it is similar to the time when Ai Weiwei filled bathtubs, sinks, and toilet bowls with porcelain blossoms in an exhibition at Alcatraz, the famous prison island in California. Perhaps it showed that all the food wasted is enough to support an empty soul? Having looked this up, I can now tell you that it is supposed to resemble a rúyì, 如意 (lit. ‘as you wish’), which was a talisman of Buddhist scholars that denoted their right to speak freely.
This pile of river crabs, the room guide told us, is a comment on internet censorship. It plays on the sound of the characters for ‘river crab’ in Chinese, hé xiè (河蟹), which also sounds like the characters for ‘harmonious’ (和谐, hé xié) in a Chinese Communist Party slogan. Because of the similarity, internet slang uses the characters for ‘river crab’ to mean ‘to censor’, just as the Chinese government views censorship as essential for creating a ‘harmonious’ society. Some crabs seem to be cooked while others aren’t, and I think crabs may be cannibalistic. I saw the futility of internet censorship, where each time something is blocked the banned post has already been read, copied, or downloaded, and though the post is effectively ‘dead’ it is ‘feeding’ and inspiring future posts.
Pearl rice, which smacks of decadence and first made me think of the cháng é bēn yuè legend of how a woman ate so many life-prolonging pills that she floated up to heaven and became a goddess living on the Moon with her pet rabbit. After some discussion, we noted that no pearl stands out when so many are amassed in the bowl, and that they are not actually edible, and so are useless to a hungry person, despite being worth a lot of money. On a personal level it was a reminder to me to value every grain of rice as if it were a pearl. In my home where leaving a grain in your bowl is a crime, this image would be particularly resonant.
If you’ve been to this exhibition or seen any of the art before, which one stood out for you and how did you relate to it? If you haven’t, the Ai Weiwei exhibition ends on 14th December 2014. Because the exhibition is inside the palace itself, you will have to buy a palace ticket (there is no special exhibition ticket) to view it. Happy spotting!
You might also want to look out for his next showcase in the UK, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, from 19 September to 13 December 2015.