Eight Art Project
Eight Art Project

Ai Weiwei at Palazzo Strozzi.

One of the most elusive personalities in the art world, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is undoubtedly even better at getting himself talked about than he is at having his say. The reasons are many and not connected solely with the kind of art he produces, but also and above all with his extensive use of the internet and social networks, to which he entrusts his thoughts and a multitude of images drawn from his (often turbulent) life every day. Ai Weiwei. Libero (Palazzo Strozzi from September 23, 2016, to January 22, 2017) is the Italian retrospective that the curator Arturo Galansino was determined to hold in Florence in order to tell the story of the artist’s checkered career and to project the Tuscan city into a more contemporary artistic dimension.

The venue for the exhibition is particularly well suited to sparking off this dialogue at a distance between different forms of expression and periods, alerting visitors to the presence of this aesthetic short-circuit even before they enter the building, through the site-specific work Reframe (2016). Twenty-two orange rubber dinghies arranged in a row on the façade, framing the majestic two-light windows chosen for the piano nobile of his residence by the Florentine banker Filippo Strozzi (1489-1538) and, at the same time, evoking the dramatic images of people fleeing certain death who entrust their lives to makeshift vessels like the ones chosen by the Chinese artist. Above and beyond the controversy that has surrounded this work ever since its installation, it is worth stressing that this kind of conceptual contrast lies at the root of not just Ai Weiwei’s work, but also that of many contemporary artists in the East, caught between a past stretching back thousands of years and a future indissolubly bound up with technology and experimentation.

On entering the piano nobile, for example, the visitor is greeted by Stacked (2012), a complex tangle of bicycles installed as a second arch of triumph that alludes to the artist who first sensed the aesthetic potentialities of everyday objects: a monumental homage not just to Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), but also to the most widely used means of locomotion in the China Ai Weiwei where grew up; yet another merger of present and past, therefore. It is not just a question of getting different periods to hold a dialogue. One of the Chinese artist’s most evident merits remains, in fact, his irreverent verve, which leads him to question the untouchability of tradition in order to instill it with new meanings: the reedition of the celebrated Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (2016) is a triptych of photographs that shows Ai Weiwei letting a 2000-year-old Chinese vase (206 BCE-220 CE) fall to the ground and smash, while Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint (2014) subjects the same ancient objects to an immersion in industrial paint. The same could be said of the Renaissance series, conceived specifically for the spaces of Palazzo Strozzi: Dante Alighieri in LEGO, 2016, and Girolamo Savonarola in LEGO, 2016, among others, again constitute a tribute to the Florentines and their illustrious past, but the colored bricks from which they are made project them into an authentically Pop dimension.

The exhibition is wide-ranging and covers the many phases of a long career that began in the early 1980s, with his move to New York and exposure to an environment that was radically new in the eyes of a young man who had grown up far away, in a communist China still totally closed to the outside world. His early works are clearly important because they indicate a precise aesthetic orientation, showing how he realized that the most ordinary reality could become an inexhaustible source of inspiration. An example is provided by the series of photographs New York (1983-93), on display in the exhibition spaces of the Strozzina. In fact each of these pictures, which are sometimes out of focus and blurred, already draws on the values which Ai Weiwei has continued to explore in recent years: the truth of those images and the freedom of a youth lived a long way from home are, at bottom, the same as the ones that prompted and drove his research into the very young victims of the earthquake in Sichuan (Rebar and Houses, 2014), earning him several months behind bars. In Surveillance Camera and Plinth (2015), finally, we have a highly effective representation of the manner in which technological instruments have become a symbol of control and repression, recalling the most incisive of Weiwei-isms: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”


Elena Tettamanti


Florence // until January 22, 2017
Ai Weiwei. Libero
curated by Arturo Galansino
Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi
Piazza Strozzi, 50123 Firenze

Photo credits:

1. Ai Weiwei
Reframe, 2016
PVC, polycarbonate, rubber
650 x 325 x 75 cm each
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

2. Ai Weiwei
Stacked, 2012
Bicycles, steel, rubber
571 x 1214,7 x 733,9 cm
Courtesy of the artsist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins/Habana

3. Ai Weiwei
Han Dynasty Vases with Auto Paint (Vasi della dinastia Han con vernice per carrozzeria), 2014
Vases of Han Dynasty (206 a.C.-220 d.C.) and car refinish paint
46 x 42 x 42 cm; 42 x 39 x 39cm;  51 x 48 x 48cm;  49 x 51 x 51 cm;
53 x 46 x 46 cm; 50 x 44 x 44 cm; 47 x 42 x 42 cm; 49 x 45 x 45 cm
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

4. Ai Weiwei
Crystal Cube, 2014
100 x 100 x 100 cm
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio


September 2016
Elena Tettamanti