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Ai Weiwei at Kunsthaus Bregenz

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The first major exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s architectural work links the artist to his architect collaborators outside China, writes David Howarth

Ai Weiwei Art/Architecture, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria 16 July – 16 October 2011, €9

Ai Weiwei’s international reputation as an architect was cemented in 2008 through his collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron on the Beijing Bird’s Nest stadium and complements his standing as artist, activist and agitator. On completion of the stadium however, he refused to support the Olympiad, using it as a symbol around which to question the Chinese political system instead. From his own house in Caochangdi, built without planning permission in 1999, to the demolition of his new Shanghai studio shortly after completion last year, Ai continues to use architecture as a vehicle for questioning the political and social processes that shape the country.

This first major exhibition of his architecture fills three floors of the Peter Zumthor-designed Kunsthaus Bregenz and concentrates on his major collaborations with other practices, rather than providing an atlas of his own extensive range of built projects. This work, and the various modes of operation employed in its making, are an interesting counterpoint to his art practice. This is timely when questions are being asked about how he will operate in the future, having accepted a teaching post in Germany following his release last month from 81 days under detention. Ai may not be able to leave China for a further year while alleged tax violations are investigated.

The Beijing stadium is represented here through model fragments, photography and video documentation. In a lesser-known project dedicated to his father, Ai invited 16 architects to design sculptures for a public park in the city of Jinhua, images of which show sensitive urban choreography.

Alongside drawings of an inflatable gallery, the Art Farm, and films documenting the found context of Beijing and the demolition of his studio, there are models of Five Houses. This project is being developed with young Swiss practice, HHF architects and client Larry Walsh, who was responsible for the recent installation of Ai’s Zodiac Heads at Somerset House in London, as founder of Chinese arts organisation AW Asia. These houses are based on the sequential repetition of a well-proportioned unit, a typology found in the Tsai Residence, another HHF collaboration in New York also featured here, and in the forms of his early Chinese brick houses.

A self-made documentary on the Ordos 100 project, shows how Ai asked Herzog & de Meuron to invite 100 young architectural practices, including DRDH, where I am director, to each design a house in the Mongolian desert. There is a moment where the freedom of the brief is discussed, and one architect asks, ‘What if all the animals in the zoo were painted the same colour?’ Here a newly commissioned, site-specific 1:40 scale timber model takes that idea and applies it to the buildings. It gives material equivalence to all 100 projects and allows one to read them as characters that show their personality through form.

Moon Chest stands in the top floor gallery, having first been shown at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2009. The work comprises eight, three-metre tall chests, made from Chinese huali wood and placed in two rows of four. Hollow, with off-centre holes front and back, their title derives from the phases of the moon seen in shadow when the viewer peers through them. As sculptures they recall the abstract minimalism and craftsmanship of Donald Judd, but they also operate as furniture, art, and perhaps more importantly within the context of this exhibition, 1:1 pieces of architecture.

Ai has said in the past that, ‘Compared to other man-made objects, architecture is probably closer to politics’. Perhaps it is his collaborative approach to international practice that will continue to offer him a dialogue with the outside world during his imposed stay in China.

David Howarth is a director of DRDH Architects, London


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