Ai Weiwei, Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio
Ai Weiwei 2018. Photo Bob Wolfenson
Ai Weiwei 2018. Photo Bob Wolfenson

The Chinese dissident artist and activist, globally known as one of the most influential, interventional and creative names in contemporary art, presents in Portugal an exhibition with 4000 sqm displaying some of his most iconic works, and four new pieces produced exclusively in Portugal.

Ai Weiwei – Rapture gathers 85 works, including large, medium and small-scale installations and sculptures, as well as videos/films and photos. The exhibition is curated by the Brazilian Marcello Dantas, creator of a series of major exhibitions by the artist in Latin America in recent years.

The artist’s best-known works are also  displayed at Ai Weiwei – Rapture. This is the case of Forever Bicycles (2015), a monumental sculpture with 960 stainless steel bicycles used as building blocks that receives the visitors at the entrance of Cordoaria Nacional; Snake Ceiling (2009), a large snake-shaped installation made up of hundreds of children’s backpacks, in memory of the students who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; Circle of Animals (2010), in which the artist recreates a series of sculptures made up of twelve animal heads from the Chinese zodiac and explores the relationship of contemporary China with its own history; and Law of the Journey (PrototypeB) (2016), a 16-meter inflatable boat with human figures, alluding to one of the most recurring themes in the artist’s work: the global refugee crisis.

Throughout the exhibition, there is a  series of documentaries, including one of his most recent films, Coronation, a portrait of the evolution of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the birthplace of the pandemic. With images captured by professional teams and citizens who voluntarily helped the artist in the project,the documentary shows how the confinement was in the first city in the world to be affected by the pandemic.

The word rapture has several meanings in English. It is the transcendent moment that connects the earthly dimension with the spiritual dimension. At the same time, it is the hijacking of our rights and freedom. Rapture may also be the sensory enthusiasm for ecstasy. Ai Weiwei – Rapture gathers these ideas in the form of an exhibition that presents the two creative dimensions of an artist who is an icon of our times.

The exhibition is divided into two themes: the side of fantasy, where this search for the imaginary is explored; the other side focuses on the reality and the emergency of issues that overflow in our lives with the worsening of human conditions for political, social or environmental reasons. Ai Weiwei offers us a closer, in-depth look into the essential questions that affect all peoples, such as where did we come from and what are we doing here.

Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles, 2015. 960 stainless steel bicycles, 1349 x 368 x 954 cm. Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2011 © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery
Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles, 2015. 960 stainless steel bicycles, 1349 x 368 x 954 cm. Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2011 © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery

“The bicycle is one of the few objects every household had when I was growing up. Society back then was very poor. To have a bike was a luxury. Forever bicycles were the best brand at the time. If a family had a Forever bicycle, it would be the most admirable for the rest of the children. They would even run after the bicycle. It is durable and practical. Built-strong for the country road.

Today, since I started doing architecture and teaching students how to build, I use the bicycle to teach them they can build with any material, not just bricks and concrete. That’s how it started. I think it’s interesting to use a ready-made. You can recall Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. I use this readymade which is something the whole society is familiar with. Even today in rich nations biking is a form of exercise and is very popular. It’s related to people. In China, this is changing. More cars are on the road and the air is getting increasingly polluted. There are many aspects to the bicycle.”

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey (Prototype B) , 2016. Reinforced PVC , 1 boat, 51 figures, 1640 x 560 x 380 cm © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio
Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey (Prototype B) , 2016. Reinforced PVC , 1 boat, 51 figures, 1640 x 560 x 380 cm © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio

After the Chinese authorities returned his passport in 2015, Ai Weiwei relocated to Berlin. Living in Germany brought Ai much closer to the greatest humanitarian issue facing the world today. Due to political and social factors—including war, religious conflict, economic and environmental crises—many people from different regions of the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, sought safety and opportunity in Europe.

In 2015, over one million refugees entered Europe. In December 2015, Ai went to the Greek isle of Lesvos. The island was one of the main entryways into the EU and hundreds attempted the dangerous sea journey each day. Ai witnessed the refugee boats coming in to shore and those scenes compelled him to become more involved.
Ai decided to produce a documentary film. He traveled to 23 countries and 40 refugee camps, conducting over 600 interviews and filming over 1000 hours of footage. This culminated in Ai’s documentary feature Human Flow (2017).
Parallel to the ongoing research and filming was the creation of new art works. Law of the Journey is a 6330-meter-long inflatable boat with hundreds of human-like figures crafted in reinforced PVC. The monumental work mirrored the crisis of humanity that was occurring in real time.

Law of the Journey (Prototype B) is one of three prototypes created. The work measures 16 meters. On October 12, 2018, the boat was installed for one day in the lake at Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo, Brazil.

Ai Weiwei, Life Cycle, 2018. Bamboo, sisal twine and silk, 2040 x 453 x 260 cm © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin
Ai Weiwei, Life Cycle, 2018. Bamboo, sisal twine and silk, 2040 x 453 x 260 cm © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

Beginning in 2013, Ai Weiwei began creating works in the medium of bamboo through traditional kite making techniques. The works are produced in the Chinese town of Weifang in Shandong Province, where the tradition of kite-making dates back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

The first set of works in bamboo was the installation titled With Wind, exhibited in the “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” exhibition in San Francisco in 2014. This was followed by the Shanhaijing works, first exhibited in Paris’ Le Bon Marché in 2016. In Life Cycle, the third set of works in bamboo, Ai reinterprets the motif of the zodiac boat through the language of kite-making, crafting the largescale boat and human figures using bamboo and sisal twine.

The figures in the boat also have the heads of the twelve animals of Chinese Zodiac. Its concept was originated from Law of the Journey (2016), which is one of Ai’s sculptural responses to the global refugee crisis and made in black PVC plastic and inflatable, mirroring the shoddy boats used by refugees to reach Europe.

Ai Weiwei, Snake Ceiling, 2009. 1.000 backpacks, 4700 x 80 x 55 cm. Private Collection. (Installation view at the National Gallery in Prague, 2017) © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy Coleção Privada
Ai Weiwei, Snake Ceiling, 2009. 1.000 backpacks, 4700 x 80 x 55 cm. Private Collection. (Installation view at the National Gallery in Prague, 2017) © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy Coleção Privada

On May 12, 2008, a massive earthquake in China’s Sichuan province killed approximately 90,000 people. Ai Weiwei created this serpentine sculpture, made of backpacks, to commemorate more than 5,000 school children who were killed when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed. Government officials refused to release the number of deaths, or acknowledge any accountability, so in 2009, Ai Weiwei launched a “Citizens’ Investigation” to ensure that neither the children nor the devastation would be forgotten. He wrote: “Can these facts be altered? The hearts stopped beating, their limbs decayed, and their shouts disappeared with their breath. Can these be returned? Wave upon wave of mighty propaganda from the national state apparatus cannot erase the persistent memories of the survivors….People’s hearts will call out each of your names. The name that belonged to you will be remembered. When it is called out again, you will rise from the dead and be contented spirits.”


The exhibition is on view through 28 November 2021.

The info is extracted from the press release.

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