It has been an eventful summer for Ai Weiwei, whose career has been characterized by resistance to the political establishment. The artist has just received his passport back from the Chinese government, which confiscated it in 2011, and he is currently enjoying two solo shows of his work in his native Beijing, which has never before been permitted. Chambers Fine Art hosts one of these shows, titled “Ai Weiwei: Tiger, Tiger, Tiger,” offering a focused selection of the artist’s works—which resonate with new meaning in light of these recent turns of fortune.
The show includes a small but representative selection of Ai’s sculptures and installations, as well as a video. Each piece is layered with references—to China’s past and present, forms of labor and production, and the value of an individual’s life and rights in a society shaped by authoritarian governments. Commanding the center of the gallery’s courtyard, Tree (2015), as its title indicates, is a massive tree, albeit one that appears more dead than alive. Leafless and uprooted, it is composed of large fragments of wood that the artist gathered in the mountains of Jiangxi Province. In the past, this wood would have been valued for its unique grain and twisting shape. Artisans would have crafted it into furniture, each piece reflecting its natural source and the hand of the person who made it. Such values and ways of working have been replaced by assembly line economics, leaving it to artists like Ai to remind us of what has been lost in China’s relentless modernization.
Inside the gallery, Bicycle Basket with Flowers (2014) sits displayed in a wood and glass vitrine. Crafted entirely out of porcelain, it consists of what its title describes: a bicycle basket brimming with flowers. Typical of the manner in which Ai invests humble objects with poignant and powerful messages, this sculpture is, in fact, a protest. For every day that his passport remained confiscated, the artist placed fresh flowers in the basket of his bicycle as a way to campaign for its (and his) release. This protest is no longer necessary, and this sculpture now reads as a relic—but this likely won’t be the last clash between this fearless artist and his government, out of which new gestures, and new art, will surely emerge.