Ai Weiwei Fan-Tan
From Wednesday 20 June 2018 to Monday 12 November 2018
The Mucem is hosting Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, one of the major actors on the international art scene. The work of the photographer, architect, sculptor, performer, film-maker and social network activist combines Chinese thought with contemporary art, namely drawing his inspiration from Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. His creations are able to challenge our societies with such force through his transformation of everyday objects into works of art.
Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing (1910-1996), the famous Chinese poet who discovered the West in 1929 on disembarking at Marseille, on the docks of La Joliette, precisely the spot where the Mucem is located today.
This connection motivated the artist to take us on a voyage through time and his art, which he links back to his paternal lineage. Through the new resonances that emerge in this exhibition, we are able to view Ai Weiwei’s work in a new light.
His creations, placed in parallel with the collections at the Mucem, invite us to question opposing notions such as East and West, original and copy, art and craft, destruction and conservation. But above all, the artwork of Ai Weiwei also challenges the relevance of our own interpretations.
General curator: Judith Benhamou-Huet, art critic and exhibition curator
- Judith Benhamou-Huet
Judith Benhamou-Huet is a curator, journalist and art critic for Le Point, Les Échos and Judith Benhamou-Huet Reports. She studied law and political science. She has curated the exhibitions “Warhol TV” at the Maison Rouge in Paris then in Portugal and Brazil, as well as “Mapplethorpe Rodin” at the Musée Rodin in Paris. She is the author of several books, including La Vie noire et blanche de Robert Mapplethorpe (Grasset), Les artistes ont toujours aimé l’argent (Grasset) and most recently Aleijadinho, le Brésil est un sculpteur métis (Les Presses du Réel).
Interview with Judith Benhamou-Huet, curator of the exhibition
Why is Ai Weiwei regarded as one of the greatest artists on the contemporary art scene?
He is an all-round artist, in the same spirit as Andy Warhol: he is on the one hand a creator of forms – he is an heir of the surrealist artists and Marcel Duchamp – but he is also committed to exploring new areas, such as social media, where he is very effective. He is a total product of this day and age and he knows how to communicate using 21st-century methods : in this way he has shown himself to be adept at mastering social media, just as Andy Warhol was able to do in his time, namely with television. Ultimately, he is a bridge between Western culture and Chinese culture, despite his clear opposition to the Chinese government. In fact, his bravery in this regard has set an example.
In what ways does his work connect with the themes explored by the Mucem?
The Mucem is a societal museum and its collections are a testament to daily life: they tell us about what we eat, how we enjoy ourselves, how we dress, what we believe in… Ai Weiwei, in accordance with Duchamp’s principles, takes this same approach through his interest in everyday objects, which he transforms into works of art. The artist and the museum therefore share one common, critical preoccupation: the observation of the everyday.
With this exhibition in Marseille, he is also retracing his father’s footsteps…
Ai Weiwei’s father Ai Qing is one of the great poets of Chinese modernity. To achieve this modernity in his work, he engaged with the ideas of the avant-garde in France from 1929. Before going to Paris, his first contact with the West was at the port in Marseille, where he disembarked. He even wrote a magnificent poem describing the chaos of Marseille at the time. Back then Marseille was regarded as a modern city, namely for its famous transporter bridge, a steel construction that was a truly modernist monument, which attracted numerous photographers of the time, like Germaine Krull and László Moholy-Nagy. At the time, Marseille was known as the “gateway to the Orient”. Ai Qing thus arrived at the La Joliette docks. We should pay tribute to this poet who, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, spent twenty years in forced exile in the north of the country, tasked with the daily cleaning of a village’s communal toilets… Ai Weiwei was born during this period, and I suspect that therein lies the root of his rebellion and his rejection of injustice.
Mucem How did you go about preparing for this exhibition? J.B.H
Ai Weiwei came to Marseille last summer to explore the Mucem’s collections and discover resonances with his own work. One of the things that we did was to retrace his father’s footsteps. We visited the merchant port where he disembarked, then the chamber of commerce and industry, where we found the log book for the boat he had travelled on. Ai Weiwei found this particularly moving.
The exhibition places Ai Weiwei’s works in parallel with objects from the Mucem’s collections. What connections have you been able to reveal?
There were different kinds of connections. Ai Weiwei is very interested in Chinese culture and in the West’s perception of the Chinese. In the Mucem’s collections we were able to find a large number of what are known as “advertising postcards”, from the early 20th century. At the time, a xenophobic sentiment dubbed the “yellow peril” was spreading across Europe, in the context of the West’s pursuit of new trade opportunities, which led to the First and Second Opium Wars. This triggered revolts from the local population. At that time the Chinese were viewed as barbarians by the Europeans, and so these advertising postcards were used to champion the cause of the French soldier on Chinese land. They were found in consumer products like chocolate – enabling us to discern a form of political propaganda through objects dating from the very beginnings of consumer society. It is just one example, among many, of the type of object Ai Weiwei is interested in…
This is the first large-scale exhibition dedicated to Ai Weiwei in France. What are the major pieces that will be presented? Has he created any artworks especially for this exhibition?
There was an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2012, but it mainly focused on his work in photography and social media. The Mucem’s exhibition is the first in France on this scale. It is exceptional on two counts: firstly, it presents pieces made by Ai Weiwei during the 1980s while he was living in New York; a unique body of work that is still rarely shown. Secondly, he has indeed created new pieces for this exhibition, namely the works made using Marseille soap. Among other noteworthy pieces, we could mention the reconstruction of a Chinese temple, or even the huge chandelier, created for the exhibition according to Duchamp’s ready-made method, but also imbued with an aesthetic dimension and a certain monumental quality: it is in fact composed of many chandeliers. All the hotels springing up nowadays in China enhance the impression of luxury with these ever-glitzier, ever-grander chandeliers. It is therefore both an object that is “post ready-made” and also a reference to the new Chinese capitalism.
Colored House is a testament to a traditional China on the verge of extinction. The wooden structure originates from Zhejiang province and dates back to the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Once common, most of these structures, have vanished from China, making way for urban development. Here, the house rests on crystal bases and is covered in a brightly coloured layer of modern industrial paint. The ancient is covered up by the new.
Soap with Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 and Soap with Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen of 1791
For this exhibition, Ai Weiwei has created two works in Marseille soap. Using traditional techniques with an olive oil base. Each one weighs a ton. These artworks, which are in the spirit of the ready-made, are engraved with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 and the
Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, written in 1791 by the revolutionary Olympe de Gouges, who was executed in 1793. Imprinted into the soap, these texts can disappear with use since soap also has a cleansing symbolism. But can it wash consciences clean?
Illuminated Bottle Rack
Continuing in the spirit of the ready-made, Ai Weiwei takes one of the emblematic pieces by Marcel Duchamp, The Bottle Rack (1914), and proposes a monumental version of it. On this silhouette, he has suspended a series of 61 antique chandeliers. This is the latest in Ai’s series of chandeliers which constitute a kind of superlative glitz, evoking the chandeliers often seen in luxurious settings in contemporary Chinese society.
Circle of Animals
These twelve animals from the Chinese zodiac, created by a French Jesuit, have been reproduced from a fountain in the Old Summer Palace of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor. By elevating these objects, Ai Weiwei was addressing several historic and contemporary issues. The animals are not Chinese creations, however, they they were looted in 1860, during the Second Opium War, by the French and English army. When two of the animal heads came up at auction in 2009 in Paris, they came to represent that dark period and became a proxy for nationalist arguments. These objects are thus ambivalent in that they are the fruit and symbol of Chinese and Western culture.