Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ai Wei Wei at the Ringling

"City Beautiful" by Robert Alosa
Bruce, Dorrit and I stopped in at the Ringling during a recent visit to Sarasota. I was interested in seeing the Ringling portion of the Skyways exhibit, a three-part show featuring the art of contemporary Tampa Bay artists. (Portions of the show were also on display at the St. Pete and Tampa Museums of Fine Arts.)  When we asked a guard for directions, we got a funny (both ha-ha and strange) reply.

"You won't have to spend much time there," he said with a shake of his head. "One day I walked by an open door and saw a lot of extension cords hanging from the ceiling. I told them they'd better get that cleaned up because the exhibit was opening soon. It turned out that was part of the show."  We laughed and went on our merry way.

The work in question was "City Beautiful" by Robert Alosa. As promised, there were lots of extension cords, along with some lumber. The wall card explained the artist's intent. The construction feel is a reference to gentrification and all its issues. The boards evoke the planks supporting newly planted palm trees that pepper developments in Florida. Not a work I'd want to have in my living room, but I can get on board with the concept. Bruce was distinctly in the guard's camp. Diplomatic as ever, Dorrit didn't take sides.

Ai Wei Wei's stools reference the treatment
of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution
Happily, Ai Wei Wei's "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" was enjoyed by the entire group. I was introduced to Ai Wei Wei's work a couple of years back when I saw an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. His work is very political, and with good reason. He was a young child in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. It was a time when people out of favor with the government were forced to wear dunce caps and sit on wooden stools in public areas. Ai remembers his father, a poet, being subjected to this treatment. His family was soon thereafter exiled from their home for 20 years.

Detail from engraving of Zodiac Fountain Clock
I could go on and on about Ai Wei Wei's work, but I'll focus on his Circle of Animals since it's on display at the Ringling through June. The work is a re-envisioning of the Chinese zodiac heads that were part of the 18th c. Fountain Clock found in Beijing's Yuanming Yuang (Garden of Perfect Brightness). Each head spouted water for two hours per day. If you look closely at the picture, you'll see the horse was having its turn, so the picture depicts a time between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the Yuanming Yuang was looted and burned by European troops. The bronze zodiac heads disappeared. Over time, five were located and acquired by the Poly Museum in Beijing. In 2009, two additional heads resurfaced -- at an auction of items from the estate of Yves St. Laurent. Controversy ensued, and the sale of the rat and rabbit heads did not go through despite the auction having been completed.

Ai Wei Wei "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads"
The Circle of Animals is a commentary by Ai Wei Wei about colonialism. But he likes the fact the work can be appreciated on different levels. "I think it's something that everyone can have some understanding of, including children and people who are not in the art world," he said.

It's worth noting that Ai Wei Wei didn't sculpt the heads himself. As with much of his work, he was responsible for the concept and oversaw its implementation.

Similarly, he didn't create the fences included in the "Fences Make Good Neighbors" exhibit now in New York City. The exhibit includes 300 (yes, 300) different types of fences located throughout the five boroughs. I am thrilled they will still be on display when I visit New York in January. (Note to self: Bring warm clothes so I can comfortably tromp all over the city.)  I'll be sure to report back.

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