Tea leaves, signs of the zodiac and the Belvedere

Ai Wei Wei, arguably the most famous Chinese artist of our time, presents an exhibition in Vienna

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Translocation – Transformation is the title of the exhibition of this Chinese conceptual Artist. He bears no introduction since he props up in everyone’s conversations, at least of folks with access to Austrian television.

And rightfully so. The two venues of the exhibition, the 21er House – Museum for Contemporary Art and the Belvedere happen to be at some remove from each other but it is certainly worthwhile to scrape together a few more Euros and also visit the canopied exhibition.

One of the principal exhibits is the ancestral sanctuary of a family of tea merchants from the late Ming dynasty that was reconstructed to a large extent at the 21er House in Vienna. The giant wooden structure is a strange contrast within the environment of the modern museum and strikes the visitor as even more imposing. For a Western observer, none of all that is familiar. Whoever may think to be prepared by the interior of a few China restaurants in Vienna to face the fascination and the richness of detail of this ancient artifact will be hugely mistaken. Even an hour later, the ornaments of this temple keep revealing heretofore undiscovered novelties.

The effect of the wooden structure is underscored by houses made of pressed Pu-Erh tea on a carpet of loose dried leaves of the plant. To see the entire significance of this exhibit unfold, it is necessary to look at the history of typical Chinese tea. It was originally pressed into various forms to let it mature for five years which created its particular taste. During the 1970s, they started to treat tea with different procedures so that it could be produced more expeditiously. Since about that time it can be found unpressed. Just like the ancient temple of a great culture, these pressed tea leaves are shown along with their more modern version (the 21er House was originally conceived as a pavilion for the Brussels World Fair of 1958 while the ancestral sanctuary was used for that purpose over many years).

The last exhibit at the 21er House is an area consisting of chipped-off nozzles of Chinese tea pots, not only a further reference to destroyed culture and the origin of the ancestral sanctuary but, from a distance, also reminiscent of bones.

Ai Weiwei’s exhibition deals with the loss of his own culture as a result of forcible relocation and, as a consequence, a change of meanings. The three “tea exhibits” create an impressive sense of foreignness and also helplessness, regardless of whether one faces destroyed ceramic pots or whether one is bludgeoned by the imposing dimension of the antique structure itself. Each exhibit is in dialog with the others and with its environment. In my perception, it is the pots in particular that, by their boney character, form a bridge to “F-Lotus”, the giant installation before the Upper Belvedere.

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The “Lotus Blossoms” of refugees saved by the West form the letter F that appears like a path across the man-made pond. Contrasting with the decadent baroque palace in the very center of Vienna, one of the world’s richest cities, the Chinese artist could not possibly have found stronger symbolism for his critique of EU and Austrian refugee policy.

The installation is surrounded by the ”Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” portraying the Chinese horoscope in twelve bronze animal heads. It alludes to the destruction of this kind of statues by French and British troops in front of the summer palace Yuanming Yuan in Beijing in 1860.

The topic of flight, of forced change of location, and the loss of culture is therefore a leitmotif of Ai Wei Wei’s exhibition and its intertextuality and manifold levels on which the artifacts communicate with their environment and with each other represents an impressive example of his very personal conceptual art that can hardly leave anyone unmoved.

The installations will be on display in Vienna until November 20, 2016. Anyone hesitant to invest in tickets for the 21er House ought at least to visit the freely accessible exhibits around the Belvedere. It is well worth it!

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