Recognised, and often pigeon-holed for his work as a political dissident, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is sure to incite debate. Before it has even opened, the exhibition has caused a stir of headlines after he welcomed visitors to bring selfie sticks and camera phones. As an ‘instafamous’ personality himself, he is no stranger to social media. In fact, you could consider the inevitable blogging of his exhibition over Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as part of his art.
While this is partly because the artist will be unable to attend the exhibition – his passport was confiscated by the Chinese government in 2011 – it is also because Ai Weiwei believes social media to be an important medium. Not unlike Andy Warhol’s fascination with mass production, Weiwei is taken with the reproduction of art over social media. Recently he printed his Twitter posts from 2009 to 2013, in Mandarin, on 6,830 pages of rice paper in the form of a traditional Chinese book.
Although the internet is everywhere, Ai Weiwei’s work is very rooted in China. Since he moved to Beijing from New York in 1993 much of his focus has shifted from Western art to the burgeoning world of Chinese contemporary art. As with the Twitter book, he often combines elements of modern commodities with older Chinese art forms. A crucial vein of this work is playing with the relationship between the real and the fake. His eight million sunflower seeds, which blanketed the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010, were made from porcelain. Even close up, the seed imitations were indistinguishable from real sunflower seeds and seemed to express the accelerated rate of mass production and globalisation in China. The piece was recreated at different scales in 12 cities across the world.
Crucially, the seeds were made by 1,600 artisans from the city of Jingdezhen, the world’s porcelain capital. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was here that the best china was produced, made for the imperial court and traded to the empires of Europe. Even the word ‘china’ comes from generations of foreign traders mispronouncing of Changnan, a corruption of the city’s previous name Changnanzhen. It was renamed Jingdezhen in 1004 AD. Since then, Chinese china has been reproduced and mimicked through style and method across the world.
Fakery and imitation is central to Jingdezhen, where anonymous artists create exact copies of the Ming and Qing antiquities. Were it not for the counterfeit market in the city, the skills needed to produce fine china might have disappeared generations ago. Making counterfeit copies now dominates porcelain production and the best of these can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds if they make it to auction.
The potential gains can be so high that the counterfeiters will wash their exquisite fakes with animal urine and ash to dull the shine and add years to the appearance of a plate or urn. Some forgers have even been known to mix old ceramics in with the newer forgeries in order to fool the thermoluminescence dating tests. Such extremes are a proliferation of the Chinese idea that there is art to be found in imitation. In fact, it is reflected across the whole nation, which is estimated to produce 70 per cent of all counterfeit products.
Weiwei sources all of his porcelain from the Jingdezhen workshops, and harnesses this idea of counterfeit in many of his pieces. Remains, which will be on show in the September exhibition, are porcelain copies of human bones excavated from the site of a military re-education camp in Xinjiang.
‘Ai Weiwei is one of the most important artists in the world today,’ said Tim Marlow, Artistic Director and co-curator of the exhibition, ‘but his work hasn’t been seen anywhere near as much as it should have been in the UK. This exhibition will begin to redress that balance and give an extensive new audience the chance to experience a creative phenomenon that is at once radical, political, architectural, historical, poetic, materially inventive and transformative... even before they’ve walked through the Courtyard.’