I actively avoid 798. I viscerally hate going there. It might be because I can't afford Swiss watches or Dior bags or whatever the galleries there happen to be pushing at any given moment. (Both of the above are currently being advertised by major 798 spaces as of this writing). Maybe it's because I hate art. I recently realized that I just straight up despise 90% of "art", the newer the worse.
But Ai Weiwei had this big-deal exhibit open over the weekend. I knew about it because half of my WeChat feed on Saturday was laowai buddies posting #AWWselfies. Really couldn't not see Ai Weiwei on my phone for the whole weekend, and I guess his particularly sly form of social media self-promotion via other-people's-selfies got to me, because there I was at 798, earlier today, reading those goddamn confusing map boards, trying to find Tang Contemporary and Galleria Continua to see this new exhibit — nay — this bona fide Beijing art world media EVENT.
Here's what you're in for with Ai Weiwei, and some musings on the man, the myth, the hashtag...
So this exhibit — Ai Weiwei — is a huge deal, because it's the first major solo exhibition that the eponymous artist, almost certainly China's best-known contemporary artist abroad, has done within China. It is simultaneously held at the aforementioned two galleries, Tang Contemporary and Galleria Continua, which had both separately invited Ai Weiwei to exhibit in 2014. Since Ai Weiwei, being Ai Weiwei, had already purchased a Ming Dynasty meeting hall sourced from a small town near his ancestral home, he said yes to both, and went about bulldozing the walls separating the adjoining galleries to reconstruct the regal Wang Family Ancestral Hall within.
Entering from the Tang side, your experience begins with this rather foreboding Goethe quote:
And... yeah. The exhibit is essentially a domineering, seemingly architecturally faithful reconstruction of this Wang Family Ancestral Hall, which curator Cui Cancan intros in a lengthy exhibition text:
"Located in Xiaoqi Village of Wuyuan County, Jiangxi Province, the Wang Family Ancestral Hall was built during the early Ming Dynasty to worship the earliest Wang family ancestor, Wang Hua, the Prince of Yue, an important figure in the sixth century... Built of the finest materials, the Wang Family Ancestral Hall was comprised of four halls, one of which was a large, centralized hall. The family devoted a significant amount of materials and financial resources to the building, as it represented their ancestral values and order, and through emphasizing these values and order, the family exemplified their social position and influence in the region."
The exhibit, like much of Ai's past work, places a few hefty leitmotifs front and center: China's conflicted relationship with its ancient material culture, the pulverizing forces that artifacts of antiquity encountered during the Cultural Revolution, and the unreal (or, more precisely, hyper-real) sheen that the contemporary paradigm of Socialist-Capitalist China — 21st-Century, economic-giant China — lacquers onto its recently rehabilitated history, for prestige and profit.
The Wang Hall is a handy index for the upheavals embedded in China's dramatic modern history. Predictably enough, in 1949 the State deemed the Wang family to be inappropriately wealthy landlords guilty of conspicuous consumption, and reassigned the centuries-old temple hall to the people. The Wang Hall then became a public hall, though the Communists didn't assign many resources to its upkeep.
After Mao launched his campaign against the Four Olds in 1966, Wang Hall was all but totally demolished. After the Cultural Revolution, its single remaining hall space functioned as a public gathering place for drying tea (an important cash crop in the area), but there was no effort to restore the building to its former glory, as much of its material and oral-historical significance had been lost in the cultural sweeps of the preceding decades.
In 2010, a culture-mongering entrepreneur named Zhu Caichang bought Wang Hall, realizing its potential monetary value in China's recently rebooted cultural heritage industry. Ai bought it a few years later, and here it is, now, reconstructed from 1,500 composite pieces in Tang Contemporary and Galleria Continua, a Ming Dynasty Ancestral Meeting Hall with Ai Weiwei characteristics. Those being: iron beams and neon lights, on-the-nose Ancient/Modern Mashups, video surveillance, selfie mirrors, trypophobic nightmares...
Ai's talent and vision as an architect are evident throughout the installation. According to the exhibition text, he really ripped Tang and Continua apart, eliminating entire office spaces and even parts of the very boundary separating the two galleries in order to create a more counterintuitively harmonious juxtaposition between the soft, wooden joints of the Ming structure and the capital-"M" Modern, jagged angles of the contemporary white cube spaces housing it.
Ultimately, however, I found the story of the building more interesting than the experience of walking amidst its reconstructed ruins. I spent most of my time in the exhibit taking photos, and trying to avoid having other people taking photos appear in my photos. I kept recalling my experience of vicariously experiencing the opening of the exhibit through that endless cavalcade of other people's #AWWselfies, and about how Ai Weiwei's story, his mediated image, is as much a work of artifice as is his actual artwork.
I truly believe the mirror pictured above was placed in the exhibit for the explicit purpose of selfie'ing, by this point an inextricable component of Ai Weiwei's persona and his work. After a while I found myself thinking that the conspicuous, live video feeds, in addition to shouting out the constant surveillance under which Ai lives and works, serve the secondary purpose of indicating just how ridiculous we look when we float around a famous artist's exhibit, trying to avoid bumping into each other like so many non-colliding gaseous particles, trying to avoid each other's phone cameras' lines of sight, driven randomly by our need to document the experience of having the experience of being inside an Ai Weiwei work. A work, moreover, consisting mostly of emptiness, of architectural negative space, and of con/textual background that remains invisible to the majority of the exhibition's daily audience.
Then I took an #artselfie. Couldn't resist.
I guess there's not much point in trying dissect Ai Weiwei the man, the self-titled installation piece, and the hashtag; the work, the images of the work, or my experience of the images of the work. Or maybe dissecting this metaphysical triple-shot is the only point. Not sure. As I said, I've decided that I hate contemporary art. But I'm a big fan of history, biography, (self-)mythology, and archaeology, and for all of these I can grudgingly recommend a trip out to 798.
Ai Weiwei is currently on view at Tang Contemporary and Galleria Continua in 798, which are both open from Tue-Sun from 11am to 6pm.