Ai Weiwei, The low of the journey. The work that refers to the crossing of refugees around the world, has already been exhibited in the largest museums. In Brazil, it enters the water, for the first time, in the Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo. It can currently be enjoyed at Oca
Ai Weiwei, The low of the journey.
The work that refers to the crossing of refugees around the world, has already been exhibited in the largest museums. In Brazil, it enters the water, for the first time, in the Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo. It can currently be enjoyed at Oca – Photo: Patricia Rousseaux

chance made with that, precisely at a time when resistance seems to be the key word for a large part of the Brazilian population, a wide exhibition of Ai Weiwei is on display in São Paulo. The exhibition by the Chinese artist and dissident, who for decades has challenged the hegemonic discourse with actions and works that are both daring and irreverent, occupies the entire space of Oca, in Ibirapuera Park. And it retraces his trajectory in great detail, including some of his most notable works, as well as a series of interventions conceived specifically from Weiwei's encounter with Brazilian landscape and culture. In addition to being a rare opportunity to get to know his iconoclastic force more closely, the gathering of these works helps to understand the strategies and poetics he has been adopting in recent decades, which reconcile universal issues such as freedom of expression and the persecution of refugees, the a more intimate and personal universe.

It is as if, hardened by the exclusionary regime imposed on his family in his early childhood and by years of resistance to the Chinese totalitarian regime – his father, the poet Ai Qing, was denounced as an enemy of the regime and exiled for 16 years –, Weiwei had become psychologically impervious to social censorship. Going further, one can see in his attitude a strategy of confrontation with institutions and traditions imposed by force and a provocative contempt for the status quo. “The time when I cared about what people thought of me is long gone,” he said in an interview with El País. Perhaps that is why he so unceremoniously uses his own image in his works.

Ai Weiwei worked for a year researching different places in Brazil. Photo: Ai Weiwei Studio

From his most challenging first action – the breaking of a XNUMX-year-old Han Dynasty vase – he poses provocatively in his works. His image reappears constantly, in the thousands of selfies he takes wherever he goes (many of them showing the middle finger to symbols of power, such as the White House) and which he posts on his popular twitter account. Or in controversial works such as the one he created mimicking the pose of the Syrian boy Aylan, found dead on the sands of a beach in Lesbos. His strong action in defense of refugees, which generated a profusion of actions such as the film “Human Flow”, seems to have disturbed part of the arts circuit, either because of its excessive use of the media, or because they felt more comfortable when the preferred target of Weiwei was Chinese imperialism.

In his Brazilian season, Weiwei gave ample vent to this use – for some shameless, for others defiant – of his image. In the more than 200 ex-votos that he commissioned for artisans from Ceará (temporarily exchanging his recurrent use of Chinese ceramics and carpentry for the wood carving typical of the Brazilian northeast) there are a series of “portraits” of him performing his performances. And he reached the apex of transforming himself into the symbol of his causes by associating his own body with a symbol of the potent nature of the Brazilian Amazon.

The work “Root”

A captivating video weaves together the “making of” of two distinct works: the painstaking modeling of the artist’s own naked body to create a plaster sculpture – presented alongside the sculptural body of a Bahian woman, in a questionable tribute to tropical eroticization – and the effort enormous way to model – to later reconstruct in China – a gigantic pequi-vinegar, an endangered species, over 30 meters high, found in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The conclusion is evident: “That tree is me”, he highlights at the end.

I confess an admirer of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, whose works he studied in depth during his formative years in New York (between 1981 and 1993), Weiwei seems to turn these authors upside down when he associates high technology, photography and video, to give a symbolic character to a single tree. Or when he summons 1,6 artisans from a Chinese region famous for their ceramic work to massively make millions of sunflower seeds. Such little pieces, reproduced in a grandiose and at the same time individualized way (they are painted by hand, one by one), condense a plurality of readings: they are clear representations of the Chinese people, in a reference to the allegory that Mao would be the sun and the sunflowers his followers, and at the same time a critique of the West, in its view of “made in China” as something poor and massified. A version of this work, created for London's Tate Gallery, occupies the third floor of Oca. Unfortunately, the installation is kept at a distance from the public, who do not have direct contact or proximity to the seeds.

Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles. The work was assembled for the first time in 2014 and contains approximately 1.250 bicycles, specially transported to Brazil

Another important work of his trajectory present in the exhibition is “Reto”, an installation made with 164 tons of steel rebars taken from the rubble of more than seven thousand schools in the Sichuan region, built precariously by deviations and overpricing and that came down with the 2008 earthquake, killing thousands of students in the region. Dissatisfied with the government's effort to cover up the incident, the artist launched a campaign to raise the identity of the dead boys and carried out a series of actions to shed light on the criminal conduct of the authorities.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Weiwei's production is his ability to magnetize things with meaning, to seek in the appearance or essence of objects and gestures a power of synthesis that leads to reflection and the desire for change. Words also have great weight in the exhibition, whether through the phrases he rewrites on oxhide using Ariano Suassuna’s armorial alphabet, or through phrases of resistance scattered throughout the exhibition space, such as the one located on the installation “Reto ”: “If you look away, you are conniving”.

It is not by chance that the artist is uncomfortable with being framed in the field of plastic artist. He says he doesn't usually go to the openings of his exhibitions (often, you have to admit, for being detained, as in the case of the Venice Biennale in 2013, when he had to be represented by his mother). And that it took a long time to consider himself a poet, like his father, to recognize that this is the “only possible position for the individual in our world”.


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