The works of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei express his critical approach to the history, culture, and politics of his country and subtly reflect his own life story. Complex intersections of past and present heighten the fascination of the installation Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads that he will install by the large water basin on the south side of the Belvedere. In these twelve bronze heads from the Chinese zodiac the artist addresses the ransacking of the fountain at the summer palace Yuanming Yuan in Beijing by French and British troops in 1860. This wanton act of destruction and pillaging was a bitter humiliation for the people of China and marked the end of the Second Opium War. With military force the British and French had coerced China to accept their opium import which was crucial for their sourcing of money to buy tea, porcelain and silk. Built in 1749 the imperial retreat had been inspired by European baroque architecture making Prince Eugene’s Palace an even more intriguing backdrop to Weiwei’s work.
Between 2000 and 2007 China bought back five of the looted animal heads (the original sculptures were of the whole body). In 2009 two further heads that had entered Yves Saint Laurent’s private collection came up for sale at an auction. The rest are still missing. All of the Chinese government’s efforts to repatriate the two bronzes have failed. Ai Weiwei responded by recreating the series in bronzes that are not exact replicas but an artistic interpretation and as such, both physically and conceptually, are a product of the twenty-first century. The artist deliberately placed the heads, which were literally decapitated by the looters, onto posts and will place them around the Upper Belvedere’s main water feature as a prelude to the exhibition at the 21er Haus.
The Second Opium War signified the beginning of the end of Imperial China 160 years ago, ushering in a new chapter in the country’s history. In the same way the Cultural Revolution, started by Mao Zedong in 1966 and ending with his death in 1976, marked a further wholescale cultural transformation. To meet the ideals of Socialism, both society and the party needed to be reformed along the lines of proletarian values. China’s culture dating back thousands of years and based on the teachings of Laozi, Buddha, and Confucius was practically eradicated by this political coercion. These draconian measures opposed traditional values and led to the uprooting, banishing, and eradication of family traditions, and the seizure, or even destruction, of property. Ai Qing, a Chinese poet and Weiwei’s father, was a victim of these repressive policies. The party prohibited him from publishing his work and deported him and his family to remote provinces. This humiliating treatment lasting almost two decades scarred the family for life and has had a lasting impact on the work of Ai Weiwei.
The subjects of expulsion, migration or even an intentional “change of scenery” as catalysts of transformation in people and objects run like a thread through the life and work of Ai Weiwei. This applies to his youth as much as to his time as an artist in the USA, his return to China, and his emigration to Berlin. Every translocation is followed by a process of readjustment. This also involves inner migration and a change of identity. In spite, or perhaps because, of his nomadic life, Ai Weiwei remains a social figure, a political animal, and cannot be seen as detached from his environment, fellow humans, society, tradition and culture.
It is against this background that Ai Weiwei’s interest in the history of the 21er Haus should be understood. This building, originally devised as an ephemeral pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World Expo, was destined to be demolished having served its purpose. But in the end it was transferred to Vienna and adapted into a museum of contemporary art. There are parallels here with the history of a Ming Dynasty ancestral hall, which lay behind Ai Weiwei’s choice for the key work in his exhibition at the 21er Haus, starting on 14 July 2016. The temple held an important role for the family during the Ming Dynasty. In this particular case the temple in question was the ancestral hall of the first settlers of a village in the southern province Jiangxi. The Wang family was one of the most important tea traders in the region and their ancestral hall was in use right up until the Cultural Revolution, at which point the family was expelled rendering it redundant. As the decades passed this once imposing and important building became a ruin on the brink of collapse, a fate it shared with many ancestral halls in this region. Ai Weiwei purchased the now displaced hall, moved it again and by placing it on display gave it a new cultural role. There could hardly be a better example of the all-pervading presence of the Cultural Revolution even decades after Mao’s death. Other works will complement this large-scale installation. Some allude to China’s tea culture (and its political components) and are thus closely related to the original owners of the temple.
Ai Weiwei transfers objects and in this case ancient mythologies from his home country to our Western world. Kite-like creatures made of the traditional Chinese materials bamboo and silk are suspended over the main staircase in the Upper Belvedere. It represents Lu, one of the many spirits described in the fictional stories from Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas). These tales originate in the 3rd century BC and were compiled to describe and explain geographical features of the vast country and their myths.