Ai Weiwei grapples with tradition and truth in Istanbul exhibition

Rows and rows of black-and-white line drawings fill the tall walls of a high-ceilinged room at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul, surrounding towering stacks of Ming-style vases painted with similar images.

Though the human figures in these works echo the style of those seen on classical Greek pottery, the scenes depicted are wholly of the current moment; endless lines of refugees crossing stormy seas, carrying their belongings on foot or camped out alongside barbed-wire fences.

“My work very often is struggling between beauty and truth; it can be very hard to separate them,” world-renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said at a talk to mark the opening of his first solo exhibition in Turkey. The show, Ai Weiwei on Porcelain, features more than 100 artworks, both newly made and dating to the 1970s. Some are overly political, while others grapple with more abstract themes of appropriation, reproduction, authenticity and what is valued as cultural heritage.

Another recurring concept in Ai’s art is the tension between the individual and the whole, including his famous Sunflower Seeds, for which he commissioned artisans in the city of Jingdezhen, northern China, to make millions of lifelike porcelain seeds. Another installation at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum poignantly pairs thousands of porcelain shards collected by the artist, all featuring Ming-dynasty-era tiger motifs, with a video of the last remaining tiger in Gaza’s Khan Younis Zoo.

When not incorporating actual pieces of cultural heritage into his work, Ai often reinterprets their visual language, calling these earlier pictorial motifs “cultural readymades”. The term itself is a reference to one of his greatest influences, the French artist Marcel Duchamp, whose minimalist portrait in porcelain appears early in the Istanbul show. Nearby, the rolling surf of The Wave, a ceramic piece created in 2005, recalls the woodblock prints of the Japanese artist Hokusai, while also evoking the power of the Indian Ocean tsunami that had killed more than 200,000 people the previous year. Two vases in another room could be mistaken for the Ming-era originals, except that dragons depicted on their surface have six claws. At the time, the five-clawed dragon was a symbol of the emperor and meant death for anyone else found displaying it.

“Tradition is only a readymade,” Ai is quoted as saying in an exhibition wall text. “It’s for us to make a new gesture — to use it as a reference, more as a starting point than conclusion.”

Ai Weiwei on Porcelain is on view at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul until 28 January 2018.

Featured Image: Exhibition Area

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters from the past#43, pages 24-25.