HONG KONG—“Refutation,” Ai Weiwei’s second solo show opens at Tang Contemporary Art Hong Kong‘s new space in H Queen’s , from March 26 to April 30, 2018. Curated by Cui Cancan, this exhibition will be Ai’s third collaboration with Tang Contemporary after his “Wang Family Ancestral Hall” show in Beijing and his “Wooden Ball” show in Hong Kong.
In 2015, just after Ai had received his passport back, he saw refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos for the first time. He began shooting video with his phone when the refugees, including the very young and the very old, climbed out of that simple inflatable boat. This event sparked his later actions, which are a direct response to the largest refugee crisis in human history. Since then, his team has shot nearly 1,000 hours of footage in 40 refugee camps in 23 countries. In 2016, Ai Weiwei presented the installation Law of the Journey, a black inflatable boat 16.4 meters long and 3.5 meters wide carrying 61 human figures.
From a cellar in Xinjiang to an underground studio on New York’s 7th Street to his present underground studio in Berlin, Ai Weiwei has been a refugee who has not stopped moving. Various political and regional restrictions have meant that he could neither hide nor escape. It is precisely this personal experience and background that gives him a sincere and close emotional relationship with these 65 million refugees. He deeply identifies with those who, like him, were pushed toward extreme misfortune by irresistible external forces.
In March 2018, this black Noah’s Ark full of refugees will stop in Hong Kong when Ai Weiwei’s solo exhibition “Refutation” opens in this once-free port. Here, Hong Kong’s hundred-year colonial history and Ai’s long “underground life” have a wonderful consonance. This city and its current conflicts give this refugee ship a distinctive meaning.
Refugees are the core subject of this exhibition. Over the last two years, whether at “Maybe, Maybe Not” at the Israel Museum, at “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” in New York City, or in his globally-released film Human Flow, Ai has built new exhibition structures to continue his repeated emphasis on the refugee crisis, discussing the issue from a range of perspectives.
At Tang Contemporary Art Hong Kong, journeys are a key theme in the exhibition space. The wallpaper on the walls of the gallery are an important background to the show. Odyssey comes from ancient Greece but is closely related to the present reality of Syrian refugees; Ai used black and white images and simple lines, weaving myth, history, and reality. He presents flight from a war zone, ruined cities, crossing seas and borders, life in purgatorial refugee camps, and various types of violence faced in Europe. Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar moves these stories to another medium. This columnar installation is comprised of a set of six stacked blue and white Yuan-style vases painted with refugees’ stories. The hand-drawn content is similar to that of Odyssey, depicting war, ruins, flight, ocean crossings, refugee camps, and conflict. He cleverly brings together dislocations in time and space, layering and re-situating tradition and reality to give them both new meaning. In this stacked porcelain installation, the six stories come from decidedly different realities, standing as metaphors for their respective times and places.
Another work in the show, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, comes from Ai’s 2015 solo show “At Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.” Alcatraz was once America’s most notorious prison. Ai used Legos to create a series of portraits of important political prisoners from around the world. This work could be seen as an extension of that installation. The picture was taken in 1995, as part of a series of images of Ai dropping the Han-dynasty vessel.
In this refutation, what power has caused Hong Kong’s present identification and anxiety about identity? In Dragon Vase, Ai Weiwei gives a potential answer: an imitation red dragon vase, akin to those made during the Xuande period of the Ming dynasty. An original vase produced by the imperial kiln would be adorned with a five-clawed dragon, but Ai has used a six-clawed dragon. Since ancient times, the dragon has been a symbol of the Chinese emperor and absolute centralized power. During the Ming dynasty, the court forbade the use of the dragon among the common people, and formulated rules regarding the designs on official court dress, more often than not overstepping its authority.
Can the control of those in power stop the human desire for freedom? In a recent article in The Guardian, Ai Weiwei refuted this point, “In nature there are two approaches to dealing with flooding. One is to build a dam to stop the flow. The other is to find the right path to allow the flow to continue. Building a dam does not address the source of the flow – it would need to be built higher and higher, eventually holding back a massive volume. If a powerful flood were to occur, it could wipe out everything in its path. The nature of water is to flow. Human nature too seeks freedom and that human desire is stronger than any natural force.”
On April 3, 2011, Ai Weiwei went missing for 81 days as he was boarding a flight to Hong Kong. Seven years later, Ai wrote in The Guardian, “The refugee crisis isn’t about refugees. It’s about us.”