Past and Present Clash in Ai WeiWei’s “Fragments”

“Fragments,” the second of three Ai WeiWei exhibitions this year, opens at the Sackler Gallery

Ai WeiWei's "Fragments" is now on display at the Sackler Gallery.
Ai WeiWei's "Fragments" is now on display at the Sackler Gallery. Feedloader (Clickability)

Between 1990 and 1995, floor space under construction surged by 750 percent in Beijing. This real estate boom, coupled with new housing deregulations, “radically changed the landscape of post-Tianenmen Beijing,” says Sackler Gallery curator Carol Huh. In the rush to modernize China, ancient structures were torn down and replaced with brand new houses and apartment buildings.

Chinese artist Ai WeiWei noticed the abundance of antique wood that flooded the market from this widespread demolition and began collecting pieces. Over the years, he incorporated this wood into various installations. The pieces that were left over he joined together in a structure called “Fragments,” on display in the lobby of the Sackler Gallery through April 7, 2013.

Using ironwood pillars and beams from dismantled Qing dynasty (1644-1912) temples, Ai worked with a team of carpenters to construct what he calls  an “irrational structure.” At first glance, the large installation does indeed resemble a randomly assembled jungle gym. But in fact, the beams form a deliberate system that maps out the borders of China. The tallest pole, at 16 feet, marks the location of Beijing. Through the marriage of the discarded past (in the form of the Qing temple building blocks) and modern aesthetics, Ai explores the spatial and cultural transformations of modern Beijing, China, and the world.

The beams are held together by wooden pegs, not nails, that must be fit together perfectly. The team of carpenters employed old-fashioned techniques to balance the complex structure. Huh explained the difficult “choreography” of installing “Fragments” at the Sackler: “It’s not so much about strength in size or force, but really just perfect alignment in order to put the pieces together.”

The relationship between past and present, tradition and modernity, fascinates Ai, especially during a time when China is struggling to find a balance between its explosion of urban development and the preservation of the country’s rich history. Thus far, Huh points out, creating a new world has meant the destruction of the old one, resulting in what she calls “our fugitive relationship to the past.”

“It’s in the midst of this simultaneous erasure and capture of heritage that Ai turned more to objects and traces of the past,” she says.

Ai, who is currently under house arrest in Beijing, is well-known in China and abroad as an outspoken critic of the Chinese government who is not afraid to express his protests through art. “In normal circumstances I know it’s undesirable for an artist to be labeled a political activist or dissident. But I’ve overcome that barrier,” Ai says in a statement he wrote to the Hirshhorn Museum, which will exhibit a survey of his work in October. “The suits that people dress you in are not as important as the content you put forth, so long as it gives meaning to new expression. The struggle is worthwhile if it provides new ways to communicate with people and society.”

The Hirshhorn is also currently hosting Ai’s “Zodiac Heads” installation, which explores similar themes of heritage and history. But while “Zodiac Heads” and “Fragments” both draw on the past, they have everything to do with the present. To explain this relationship, Huh quotes the artist himself: “The faster we move, the more often we turn our heads back to look how fast.”

“Fragments” will be on display at the Sackler Gallery through April 7, 2013.

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