Monday, October 15, 2012

Book Review: Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei: Art | Architecture edited by Yilmaz Dziewior
Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2011
Hardcover, 150 pages

As early as 2006 the well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei mentioned through his blog that he did not wish to pursue architecture anymore. Two years later the Olympics in Beijing were held, centered about the "Bird's Nest" stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron with Ai Weiwei. That year supposedly saw his last architectural engagement (the Serpentine Pavilion, also designed with Herzog & de Meuron this year, is somewhere between art and architecture, so probably excluded). It may not seem like much for an artist to make this sort of proclamation, but according to texts in this book on Ai Weiwei's art and architecture, he had been involved with roughly 60 buildings completed before the Olympics. This number is high for a practicing architect but extremely high for an artist. Yes, Ai Weiwei's involvement was typically limited to conceptual design, not the later stages of a building's project, but he even set up Fake Design to handle architectural commissions.

Besides the Bird's Nest stadium, the most well-known building by Ai Weiwei is the artist's own studio in Shanghai, not for any formal aspect, but because it was torn down last year by Chinese authorities in a move that the artist said was linked to his political activism. Nevertheless, there is something appealing about the simple brick and concrete building that speaks to his ability as an architect as well as his oppositional stance to what is taking place in China's contemporary urbanization. A focus on the human being through the articulation of materials and spaces results in tangible places rather than clusters of high rises that are indistinguishable from each other. Even without considering Ai Weiwei's political activism, the difference of his attitudes to the Chinese government comes across in his architecture.

This book is not a complete survey of Ai Weiwei's architectural output. It is the print companion to an exhibition held last year at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria that "concentrates on Ai Weiwei’s major architectural collaborations developed with other architectural practices." (The exhibition happened to occur when the artist was detained in his home country; in response the museum planned a "variety of solidarity projects," such as mounting large letters atop the Peter Zumthor-designed building that read "FREE AI WEIWEI.") Projects documented through photos, renderings, and in situ exhibition photos include Jindong New Development Area, the National Stadium (Bird's Nest), Five House (with HHF, as are the next two projects), Artfarm, Tsai Residence, Ordos 100, and Moon Chest. The last is an abstract installation that occupied the museum's third floor and comprised a series of all-wood obelisks with circular openings. These apertures allowed for a variety of views across the space and through the other obelisks. The objects were aligned with Ai Weiwei's focus on materials and human perception, even as the grid resembled the repetitive blocks of high-rise housing transforming China's urban landscape.

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