New York – Mary Boone Gallery

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Mary Boone Gallery

Mary Boone Gallery, New York, 2008

Ai Weiwei is one of the most innovative figures in China’s art scene. Over the last twenty-five years, he has accumulated a diverse body of work that both represents and intervenes into the country’s restless social, cultural, and political order. He has stared straight into the lens of a camera and smashed a 2000-year-old vase with no visible remorse (Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995). He has bluntly aimed his middle finger at the White House, the Eiffel Tower, and Tiananmen Square (Study of Perspective, 1995-2003). In 2000 he co-curated with Feng Boyi Fuck Off, a notorious exhibition that ran alongside the Third Shanghai Biennale, the city’s first truly international survey of contemporary art. It is no surprise that Ai Weiwei’s work is provocative. He is the son of Ai Qing, the renowned modern poet who was exiled during the Cultural Revolution, a young Weiwei in tow.
The current obsession with China as a rising global force has evoked strikingly dated rhetoric in the Western media, one that is deeply colonial in nature, and implicitly expresses the West’s fears of the loss of economic, political, and military power. In light of this, Ai Weiwei’s project for the recent Documenta could not have been more timely. Fairytale seemed at first a simple proposition: invite 1001 Chinese guests to visit Kassel, Germany. But what appeared to be a straightforward project took on increasingly complex socio-political dimensions. The difficult logistical and ethical negotiations in the realization of the project, not to mention the sheer scale of displacing such numbers of people, revealed the harsh realities of Globalization, namely that not all people have equal access to the free flow of capital and mobility it promises.
A more formal provocation stands as the centrepiece of Ai Weiwei’s first major exhibition in New York. A colossal chandelier, one that appears caught in the midst of a violent fall, fills the gallery space, contorted as if buckling under its own weight. It rests askew on the floor, the structure’s gold armature affixed with strands of red crystals lit from inside.
While the basic form of the chandelier dates back to early medieval times, the more elaborate structures based on the ring design became popular in the early eighteenth century, and were found in palaces and homes of the nobility as a symbol of wealth and status. Ai Weiwei’s monumental chandelier, Descending Light, harkens back in turn to the utopian ambitions of modernity, embodied in physical structures and feats of architecture that matched the modern age. With its bright red hue, emblematic of China, reflected onto the wall, the crashing chandelier alludes to the crumbling of an established order. Descending Light can be seen as a symbol of the radical change currently taking place in China, one that is being played out on a global stage.

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