Ai Weiwei

“History,” Ai Weiwei has said, “is the missing piece of the puzzle in everything we do.” The same could be said about Ai himself, whose work as an artist, curator, editor, and architect has been a driving force behind the development of experimental Chinese art for over twenty years. Remarkably, “Fragments,” presented in Galerie Urs Meile’s new Beijing exhibition space (which Ai designed), is the artist’s first solo exhibition in China.

Ai’s art has largely been defined by his use of historically charged materials, disfigured and reconfigured to create iconoclastic sculptures and installations. Shattering a Han-dynasty urn in 1995 or defacing another with the Coca-Cola logo in 1994, he remarked on the loss of China’s cultural legacy by reenacting its destruction, leaving viewers aghast and implicating himself in the process. Since 1997, Ai has also employed master woodworkers to dissect and reassemble Qing-dynasty furniture into strange hybrid configurations. The seamless construction of these sculptures has an absurd grace that could be achieved only through the most arduous—and inventive—application of ancient Chinese joinery techniques. Ai is still recycling material from China’s past but also reflecting more directly on the country’s present and future. Fragments of a Temple, 2005, is a large installation comprising the salvaged beams and pillars from temples dismantled with government approval to make way for real estate development in southern China. Eleven massive columns were erected on the gallery floor, outlining a map of China when viewed from above. These, along with additional temple parts, unused wood from Ai’s earlier furniture pieces, and an antique table and chairs, were fused into a massive structure—without the use of a single nail. Not only was the installation built by skilled artisans using the strict rules of traditional Chinese carpentry; they actually designed it themselves. The artist merely requested that they reconnect all the pieces, leaving it to them to decide how.

The exhibition’s three related video projections—Beijing: Chang’an Boulevard, 2004, Beijing: The Second Ring, 2005, and Beijing: The Third Ring, 2005—were also realized according to a simple set of rules, and again refer to a map of the city, etherealizing it into a weightless cycle of digital snapshots. Traveling the city’s major thoroughfares, the camera measures the city in one-minute shots taken at designated points along its path. Pausing to gaze at construction cranes, office towers, power plants, and an endless stream of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, the videos offer viewers a chance to stop and look at the city with a clarity that could never be achieved without the camera’s mechanical indifference. Juxtaposed with the installation, the urban vistas of Ai’s video projections can be seen as what Robert Smithson called “ruins in reverse,” “zero panoramas” containing “all the new construction that would eventually be built. . . . The buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.” The glittering skyscrapers and dusty alleys seem fragile and temporary—as if awaiting their own demolition.

Envisioning history as a series of missing pieces has particular resonance in China today, where, once again, everything old is being destroyed in a maniacal race toward the future. While the shards of the past are swept out of sight, their absence casts a shadow over all that is new. By bringing together the discarded pieces of a bygone past and images of a present already on the edge of decay, Ai reminds us that the totalities we cling to are illusory. Fragments are all we have.

David Spalding