Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei explores the meaning of migration at Vienna’s 21er Haus

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei (photo courtesy Belvedere Wien)

Ai Weiwei is thrilled by the possibilities of his time: “In human history, there’s never been a moment like this,” the Chinese dissident artist and filmmaker said in a recent interview.

It’s been an optimism hard won. After his arrest in 2011 by the Chinese government for alleged “economic crimes,” his stature as an artist led to an international media and street-art campaign, “Free Ai Weiwei,” led by governments, arts institutions and human rights groups throughout the West. Since his release later that year, no other living artist has so embodied art’s ability to criticize and satirize political oppression. His new body of work spans visual and performance art, sculpture, architecture, and photography.

Regaining his passport in 2015, Ai Weiwei relocated to Berlin, where his critical gaze has fallen onto Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis. The artist has wrapped Berlin’s Konzerthaus in 14,000 salvaged lifejackets, marched through central London with sculptor Anish Kapoor, and recreated the horrific and widely circulated image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lifeless on a ­Turkish beach.

Ai Weiwei’s latest solo project, opening at ­Vienna’s 21er Haus this month, may be the artist’s most all-encompassing statement yet: a 14-meter tall wooden temple consisting of over 1,300 individual pieces; a show described as “monumental”  and presented for the first time outside of China. As ever in Weiwei’s work, meaning is embedded in many deep layers – in this case, the wood of the Ming dynasty temple and the glass of the 21er Haus itself.

Titled translocation – transformation, the exhibition centers around the main hall of a tea merchant family’s ancestral temple, painstakingly reconstructed and shipped from China, displacing the structure and thus imbuing it with new significance and resolve. The repurposed building mirrors the 21er Haus, originally a temporary structure for “Expo 58” at the World’s Fair in Brussels. It was later relocated to  its current spot near the Belvedere as a place of “discourse, dissent, and experiment” – the perfect setting for the work of Ai Weiwei.

The show also includes Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads,  a series of 12 busts portraying the animals of the Chinese zodiac, set around the large basin on the  grounds of the nearby Belvedere. Based on figures looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace by British and French troops in the 1850s, they are important both as art and as markers of a turning point in history.

Without sacrificing any of that zest for provocation that made him a global icon, translocation – transformation looks to be among the artist’s most ambitious, and outright beautiful works to date, standing as testament to a dislocated tradition grappling with modernity and culture in a globalized world.

Ai Weiwei: Translocation – Transformation

Jul 14 – Nov 20, 21er Haus, 3., Arsenalstraße 1