Jane Morris: Ai Weiwei is present in spirit, not in body

Two years after his detention by the Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei's work is prominently displayed in Venice this year: as well as the German pavilion, there are joint off-site displays on Giudecca and in a church close to San Zaccaria. This "collateral" event has been arranged by the newish Zuecca Project Space, which shows art in a large space next to (and owned) by the luxurious Bauer Palladio hotel on Giudecca. Zuecca also secured the use of the Sant' Antonin church in Castello for a second installation by the 56-year-old artist and activist.

Ai Weiwei S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013 Installation view,Chiesa di Sant' Antonin, 2013. Courtesy, the artist and Lisson Gallery

It is likely that it is the latter display, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013, that will garner the headlines—in fact, it already has, with a substantial preview in the New York Times—since it deals directly with the 81 days of Ai's detention. Six large iron boxes have been placed in the nave of the church. Any similarity to the work, most immediately, of Donald Judd is undone by the insertion of the imprint of door in a side wall and a (rather incongruous) step on the side of the boxes. These give access to viewing slots allowing us to see scaled down models of Ai and the guards who watched him constantly for the duration of his detention within. The blank exterior walls (which Ai couldn't see) are contrasted with the detailed interiors executed within, reconstructed from memory. Little imagination is needed to guess that Ai's detention was humiliating, sometimes terrifying, and grindingly boring by turns.

Ai Weiwei Straight, 2008-2012 Installation view, Zuecca Project Space, Venice, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery

Straight, 2008-2012, in the former convent's workhouse on Giudecca, is a wave-like, floor-based sculpture made out of rusted iron concrete reinforcing rods. A documentary video explains that the rods are from the wreckage of the schools flattened by the Wenchuan earthquake—or more accurately, flattened because corruption had allowed sub-standard public buildings to be constructed which toppled at the first shockwave. Each bar has been carefully straightened by hand-hammering, then graded by length to form the structure, itself reminiscent of a wave or the lines on a seismograph. Much less obvious than S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013, this is a truly successful marriage of concept and form, showing Ai Weiwei capable of producing a work that is a memorial, a protest and formally sophisticated sculpture in one.

Straight- worth a detour

S.A.C.R.E.D. - worth a visit

Jane Morris is the editor of The Art Newspaper

Published Wed, 29 May 2013 15:52:00 GMT

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