Ai Weiwei at K20 & K21 - Where is the Revolution?

By .kojo Adumatta (@aaimba.aaimba)
23/09/19

Ai Weiwei - Laundromat (2016)
Ai Weiwei - Laundromat (2016)

"It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child", Pablo Picasso once said. We are in the middle of September, and it took me quite a long time to write about my experience at K20 and K21➹ in Düsseldorf, Germany. The happenings of life kept me from doing it. Well, Ai Weiwei's exhibition is long gone, and my memories of it are foggy. So I decided to write about my approach towards art and exhibitions in reference to Ai Weiwei's show at K20 and K21. Pablo Picasso's quote entirely fits my way of exploring shows – especially the second part.

My travel to Düsseldorf was a premiere of sorts. It was the first time I could invite Emma, a friend, to come along. For once I was not by myself and had somebody to muse about the show. There was no need to talk to strangers and ask them what they think about a particular artwork. It was a blessing. Fortunately, we both share the same enthusiasm for art. While we were strolling through the show, I noticed that we both had different approaches to understanding and experiencing the program. Her attitude was towards understanding the concept and the messages Ai Weiwei was communicating. I felt this method was academical and an effort to educate oneself on how and why this show might or might not be relevant to her, society, and the artist. She read some reviews to have a notion of what could or should be expected from the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei - Life Cycle (2018)
Ai Weiwei - Life Cycle (2018)

Ai Weiwei - Life Cycle (2018)
Ai Weiwei - Life Cycle (2018)

I have a different concept for exploring and experiencing art. As an artist myself, I do not necessarily read the explanation text to every artwork. Nor do I read reviews before I visit a show; at least I try not to – in some cases it is inevitable. My first approach is always to figure out where the art is taking me, within myself. To come back to Pablo's quote: I always try to find that innocent child in me first. Viewing artwork without any preconceived notion, which is hard to maintain, is exciting, often disturbing and confusing. I find it challenging to get the concept, thoughts and ideas around artwork and shows from scratch. To feel what it does to me before knowing the artist's intention is what excites me the most – even if now and then it can be glaringly obvious. Ai Weiwei is one of those artists where it is almost impossible to escape his concepts. He is clearly a political artist, and that is, I suspect, the way most people view his work. By knowing that, it is hard to free oneself from purposely searching for the message, the social criticism, the blame towards the political establishment or in this case, the evil other. There is little to no room left for different interpretations or emotional approaches. But who am I to judge when this is his intention?

Ai Weiwei - Sunflower Seeds (2010)
Ai Weiwei - Sunflower Seeds (2010)

Ai Weiwei - Zodiac (2018)
Ai Weiwei - Zodiac (2018)

Ai Weiwei - Zodiac (2018)
Ai Weiwei - Zodiac (2018)

What stuck with me after the exhibition is that Ai Weiwei's thoughts and artworks are undeniably rooted in Chinese culture. He simultaneously manages to create layers in his works that anybody can relate to. The perfect examples are his squared Zodiac (2018) works made out of Lego pieces. As soon as we got there and walked around the Sunflower Seeds (2010), Emma quickly got her phone out and searched for her sign on the squared Zodiac objects. As soon as I arrived, she asked me for my birthday so she could look up my Chinese Zodiac sign. Another example is his Laundromat (2016) installation. In this installation, Ai Weiwei hung laundry left by refugees in the Idomeni Refugee Camp, where he was filming his "Human Flow" documentary. He arranged them on regular coat stands, hoisted up high so it was impossible to see a person’s face or body when he was standing right behind it. The connection is somehow apparent as we all need to wear clothes in our everyday lives.

Ai Weiwei - Laundromat (2016)
Ai Weiwei - Laundromat (2016)

Ai Weiwei - Laundromat (2016)
Ai Weiwei - Laundromat (2016)

There are more layers one can get out of Ai Weiwei's artwork. This aspect is something that I individually find astounding, and it stuck with me. His topics are all issues of this day-and-age or still relevant and will continue to be in the future. This here-and-now attitude reminds me of another quote by an Egyptian artist, Mohamed Abla: "It is about how I feel now, and it is this now that I need to express."

Ai Weiwei - S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011 - 2013)
Ai Weiwei - S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011 - 2013)

Ai Weiwei - S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011 - 2013)
Ai Weiwei - S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011 - 2013)

Ai Weiwei - S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011 - 2013)
Ai Weiwei - S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011 - 2013)

Ai Weiwei - Circle of Animals (2011)
Ai Weiwei - Circle of Animals (2011)

Ai Weiwei - Straight (2008 - 2012)
Ai Weiwei - Straight (2008 - 2012)