I was fortunate enough this Easter, to be able to see the Law of the Journey, a new show by exiled Chinese activist artist Ai WeiWei, mounted in the National Gallery in Prague. The show brings together some recent epic work that addresses the refugee crisis in a dramatic register including the title piece, a huge inflatable boat carrying dozens of passengers made from the same material suspended above a series of quotations from writing by Franz Kafka, Socrates, Edward Said, Vaclav Havel and others. Like a giant children’s toy, it is a temporary, mobile monument to the thousands of adults and children who’ve drowned in the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe in the last decade.

IMG_7279.jpgMy son studying Law of the Journey (Prague National Gallery)

Among the pieces included in the show were also a couple of bicycle-related works. Ai has been making art from bicycles for some time now, and has produced some immense sculptural installations constructed from ‘Forever’ bicycles, the most ubiquitous Chinese brand. Some of these structures, such as those exhibited in Tokyo in 2003, Taipei in 2012, and San Gimigniano and Toronto in 2013, involve anything from several dozen to several thousand identical frames and wheels welded together to form geometrically dense, architectural spaces through which the viewer can walk.

IMG_5412.jpgIMG_5409.jpgOne of Ai’s ‘Forever’ bicycle pieces exhibited at the Royal Academy retrospective, London, 2015

Like much of Ai’s work this has a political register; as well as citing Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture and a tradition of minimalist art, they are a visual crystallization of a society structured by mass production and the homogeneous, industrialized urban environments that many of us live in. As Ai has declared, ‘China is producing for the demands of the market [and] my work very much relates to this blind production of things’ (Bingham 2010: 24). Juliet Bingham recounts that, in his art practice, ‘Ai has often taken objects and rendered them useless’, and, indeed, the bicycle sculptures transform this most useful of objects into something entirely devoid of use-value – into art (Ibid. 25).

More recently, the bicycle sculptures have found an echo in the piles of discarded hire bicycles left on the streets in Shenzhen. Like artless copies of Ai’s intricate assemblages, these tangled heaps are a sign of the changing significance of the bicycle in China where, as elsewhere, car ownership is a desirable indicator of social status.

5216.jpg

The brand name, ‘Forever’, lends this commentary upon the over-production and irrationality of a market economy a chillingly dystopian tone, but in addition to this broadly critical commentary, the later pieces also serve as memorials to Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who was arrested in 2007 for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Having made allegations of police brutality, Yang was executed in 2008 for an attack on a police headquarters and the revenge killing of six police officers. With the trial held behind closed doors, Yang’s became a cause célebre since, for some commentators, Yang’s action was seen as a form of protest against an oppressive regime. Considered in this context, Ai’s works put the bicycle to use as a vehicle for political protest.

IMG_7263.jpgIMG_7266.jpgWith Flowers (details) (Prague National Gallery)

An example of this in the Prague exhibition was an installation in the gallery café entitled With Flowers (2013-2015). The modest exhibit consisted of the artist’s bicycle – significantly perhaps, a Taiwanese ‘Giant’ bike, rather than a Chinese brand –  propped discreetly against a wall, and colourful digital prints of bouquets of flowers with dates, pasted around the room. The piece was created during a two-year period in which Ai was banned from travelling outside China. In protest, he placed his bicycle outside his studio and put a fresh bouquet of flowers in the basket every morning until the travel ban was lifted and his passport was returned. In a very simple way, the association of the bicycle with freedom of movement, takes on a political significance in this work. The second related piece of bicycle-art, displayed in a gallery of ceramic pieces, was a bicycle basket made from porcelain. An improbable object, it transforms the mundane plastic basket and gaudy flowers into delicate, intricate work of art. As subtle as any of his works, the object establishes a link between activism and traditions of decorative art in Europe and China, and it also represents a defiant insistence upon beauty in the face of political repression.

IMG_7312.jpg

Bicycle basket with flowers in porcelain (2014) (Prague National Gallery)

Reference:

Juliet Bingham (2010). Ai WeiWei: Sunflower Seeds (London: Tate)