Back in 2020, the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei bought a number of Chinese antiquities at an auction in Cambridge, a city in which he retains a base having lived here for a few years, and where his son still goes to school. Some of the pieces are more than a thousand years old, dating from the Northern Wei and Tang dynasties. In his new solo show at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, he is showing them alongside his own new and existing work.
There were among the auction items a few that Ai Weiwei believed might not be as old as purported. Counterfeits in other words. Such is the minute attention to detail with which these copies are crafted that only experts in the field can spot them. So Ai contacted one he knows in China who not only confirmed that a beautiful-looking vase purporting to be from the Qing Dynasty had in fact been created in the last 20 years, he even named the person responsible for making it.
Ai Weiwei then formed the idea of including these fakes as a way of exploring notions of truth, authenticity and value. He feels the West is obsessed with such notions in contrast to the Chinese belief in which, as he puts it “aesthetic judgments are a part of nature and that re-interpretation, re-rendering and recreation of artworks through personal reflections are valued more in the common perception than artworks which are deemed absolutely true or real.”
Ai Weiwei himself commissioned an exact replica of a stunningly beautiful porcelain Ming vase that bears the motif of a dragon. In imperial times, only the emperor was allowed to depict a five-clawed dragon. Ai Weiwei, ever the iconoclast, has added a sixth.
There are beautiful works on show here, a favourite of mine being a crouched hare made from red puddingstone in the style of the Sui dynasty. I wouldn’t have a clue whether this was genuine or not. There’s nothing to suggest in this case that it isn’t, but does it matter? This is the type of question Ai Weiwei is raising, along with other broader issues such as what criteria are the cultural gatekeepers, the museums, using in assessing cultural values.
If there’s a problem with this exhibition, it’s that the focus is somewhat diffused. Mixed in with questions of truth are notions relating to globalisation, the pandemic and to current political issues.
So, we see a Han dynasty urn with the Coca-Cola logo emblazoned on it symbolising China’s now dominant role within today’s consumer culture. If this might seem like a desecration, it’s nothing compared to his famous conceptual work in which he dropped a Han dynasty urn to symbolise and publicise the Chinese government’s widespread destruction of the country’s heritage. That act is represented here by the clever recreation of photographs of it using LEGO bricks.
As with previous Ai Weiwei shows, I found The Liberty of Doubt a mixture of the exquisite and the mundane. Ai has referenced the current pandemic by taking scarce everyday objects when lockdown was first mooted, such as a toilet roll, and had them cast in marble. Fun but hardly worth the effort.
What I found most interesting were the exhibits that hark back to Ai Weiwei’s personal and courageous role in taking on the Chinese authorities in his campaigns for freedom of expression, political transparency and human rights. There’s a porcelain plate that bears a seductively colourful image of the MRI scan of his cerebral haemorrhage that occurred after he was beaten up by the police while he was campaigning against the government cover-up of victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Similarly, there is a set of handcuffs that refer to his 2011 arrest and secret imprisonment in China for 81 days. They provide an uneasy contrast between a beautiful object and an ugly symbol of repression. As a commissioner, rather than a maker, Ai Weiwei told an audience at the exhibition’s preview that he chose to have the piece made in jade not only because it’s a mineral that has been traditionally used for thousands of years but one that is particularly difficult to work with. It was part of his ethos to challenge artisans to push themselves to the limits of their capabilities.
It’s worth noting that also on view here are documentary films he has made, showing in upstairs rooms. They focus on human migration, the origin of the Covid pandemic in Wuhan, the recent anti-government protests in Hong Kong and the story of his time as an arts activist in New York from 1983 – 1993. One quote from the last stood out. “If you don’t speak out, clear your mind, who are you?”
The Liberty of Doubt is showing at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge until 19 June 2022
The top image is courtesy Thierry Bal.