In my frenzy of packing last week, I was excited to take a break and avail of an invitation to see the new Ai WeiWei exhibition “According to What?” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ai WeiWei is a dissident Chinese contemporary artist who is presently under house arrest in Beijing. His public criticism of the Chinese government’s authoritarian stance on democracy and individul rights has led to his passport being confiscated so he couldn’t be at the opening of the exhibition. The show was visually stunning encompassing sculpture, video, photography, and more. I was taken by his use of old antique pieces to create something new and dynamic. In the picture above, he has dipped original Han Dynasty vases in brightly coloured industrial paint while the photos in the background show him dropping Han vases to shatter on the floor. My first reaction was horror that something so old should be destroyed in this way but then I began to appreciate his philosophy of having to break away from old patterns of thought and behaviour in order for something new to emerge.
His ‘Moon Box’ is a series of seven 3 m high hollow boxes made of huali wood reclaimed from destroyed Ming and Qing temples. They have little circles cut out of the middle and are aligned in a curve so that if you look through the centre to the other end, you see the phases of the moon. No nails or screws have been used in their construction. There is something to be said for taking something old and re-working it using traditional techniques to create a thought-provoking piece relevant to our modern culture. I found myself examining the boxes much more carefully than if I had been viewing an original temple. By the way, in case you’re wondering what huali wood is, it is fragrant Chinese rosewood!
Speaking of old objects, I have been having difficulty getting rid of some of my antique pieces of furniture as they are not fashionable at the moment and nobody is interested in buying them. I have one cabinet in particular which has decided to remain with me despite my best efforts to get rid of it over a number of moves. Oddly, it has also turned out to be the most useful piece of furniture regardless of where I ended up. Despite wanting to dump it each time, I made good use of it in my house in Dublin, an apartment in London and two houses in Toronto. History is repeating itself and I still can’t get rid of it. My sister kindly agreed to store it for me until I figured out my next move. The cabinet is somewhat fragile and rather than load it into a small pick-up truck and risk damaging it when we were moving stuff on Sunday, my nephews put it on a little cart and wheeled it down the road to my sister’s house. It looks very nice in her living room and I might just leave it there. Alternatively, I could follow Ai WeiWei and paint it in a striking colour to suit my new apartment when I eventually move into it!