News Column

Ai Weiwei fills chapel with reasons for his absence

May 23, 2014

Maev Kennedy

A timeline, inscribed as elegantly as lines of poetry in the calm bright space of a newly restored Georgian chapel in West Yorkshire, explains why the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will not be joining the celebrations for major new exhibitions of his work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or Lisson Gallery in London.

The exhibitions, opening this week - the first in the UK with new works since his Sunflower Seeds filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern - have had to be organised with his studio in Beijing by email: the artist can rarely even speak on the phone. In a Guardian interview in 2010, he said: "I have to speak out for the people who are afraid." But, as the timeline makes clear, speaking out has become increasingly difficult for him.

Clare Lilley, director of programme at the sculpture park, said: "These pieces look so calm and beautiful - but the undertone is that life is really incredibly difficult and bloody for millions of people."

The timeline includes some figures the west may have forgotten: an estimated five million famine deaths across China in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961. Some of the dates are unforgettable: 1989, troops opened fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square; 2008, an earthquake hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands - and Beijing hosted the Olympics.

There are dates personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left-Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a "rightist" with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.

And recent dates from the artist's life: 2008, artistic adviser for the "Bird's' Nest" Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and surgery after assault by police; 2010, house arrest as Sunflower Seeds opens at Tate Modern; 2011 accused of "economic crimes" and imprisoned for 81 days, and Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads "2014, passport confiscated".

Lilley had the idea of an Ai Weiwei show when she was wondering how to celebrate the reopening of the chapel, a Grade II* listed building, rescued from dereliction at a cost of pounds 500,000.

By happy coincidence, a private collector phoned to say he was about to buy a very large, heavy sculpture, would not have space to display it, and wondered if the park would like to borrow it. It proved to be the 9.4 tonnes of Ai Weiwei's Iron Tree. The tree, already rusting into a beautiful golden red, is spectacularly installed by the gable, surrounded by the real ancient graveyard trees.

Ai Weiwei in the Chapel, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, until 2 November


Ai Weiwei's Iron Tree in the chapel courtyard at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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