Do you remember when saying “fuck you” was considered to be a rude attitude? Nowadays this word is close to mean nothing at all. We use it as a saying, so that its meaning shot down. I could write it a thousand times and no one would be impressed at all: fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you… This effect has been recently underlined by Gilbert&George’s performance at the Serpentine Galleries of London, during the recent Miracle Marathon, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Nevertheless, there are a few people who still care about the word’s weight, and one of this is Ai Weiwei for sure. If you are planning to travel to Florence, you should not forget to visit the Chinese artist solo show at Palazzo Strozzi: “Ai Weiwei Libero”. Whether you like his art or not, it is worth a visit for several reasons: first, it is the very beginning of the new Director Arturo Galansino’s exhibition program. Second, because it presents a vast part of Ai’s production.
The outside walls of the Palazzo Strozzi are covered by Reframe (2016), a ring of boats resembling those used by immigrants to sail the sea in search of the European asylum. In the interior courtyard, some solar kitchen components are assembled together in order to make a heavy-looking and sparkling wing. This artwork was made in order to critically face the issue of imprisonment – his own one, and that of the detained people of San Francisco’s jail, whose conditions are barely acceptable. Here lies the meaning of the claustrophobic sensation we feel while looking at this artwork, that seems to be imprisoned into the yard such as every jailed person is.
Upstairs the exhibition opens with Stacked (2012), an installation made of bicycles piled together to form a labyrinth. Of course it is a way to recall to the most popular private transport in China. Moreover, to the fact that it has become iconic, but we still forget the extremely poor conditions in which the most of the Chinese people are immersed. Here is the paradox of China, that is one of the Newly Industrialized Countries but, at the same time, one of the poorest. If we listen to the wheels’ hiss, there is a certain kind of freedom sensation coming to mind, which is then pushed on second stage by the Duchampian readymade and all its historical weight.
This artwork and many others, like Snake bag (2008), Divina Proportio (2016) and the big sculptures made of paper, silk and wood which resemble the traditional Chinese characters, perfectly fit the renaissance rooms. Thanks to the curatorial attention, the exhibition presents the advantage of bringing a contemporary artist to the noble stages of Palazzo Strozzi, imposing this choice in an ambient – the Florentine one – where the art of the present is often polemized and rejected with decision. In fact, this is exactly what happened with the installation of Reframe.
The two sides of Ai are constantly facing each other: the poetic and traditional one, and that of the severe protest on the other hand. As a consequence, pictures by the Study of perspective series share the same room of the paper sculptures. In the photographs the artist shows his middle finger to those symbols of the political and social power of different states. One of whom, of course, is Palazzo Strozzi. The equilibrium of the exposed works of art is put into judgement by the wallpaper made with emblematical logos, as the Twitter one, that is surrounded by chains and surveillance cameras. Their golden and pop shape whispers the carelessness we often adopt by using the social tools. At the same time, the room with the Lego portraits inspired by the Renaissance exiled figures looks like a bridge between past and present, suggesting the sense of identification between the artist and Dante Alighieri, Galileo Galilei, Savonarola, and Filippo Strozzi of course. As Hans-Ulrich Obrist wrote in his preface to Ai Weiwei speaks, “[his] broad interest in art, architecture and writing reminds me of the great Renaissance artists”.
He has the special attitude to take social movements and phenomena and increase their power in order to reach the people with their own voice. Moreover, he also has the gift to join individuals through his art, by using new medias and participation (see the Leg Gun series). Here is why Ai’s work seems a loudhailer for the masses. At the end of the visit, walking downstairs to the Strozzina rooms, we face some photographs and a video installation that bear witness of the artist’s personal notebook. From the first years Ai moved to America, passing through the Photographs of surveillance series, to the super famous selfie one. By looking at those pictures we can figure a little bit about the life of an artist that is politically involved into art. How would you figure to be under surveillance 24 hours per day? Suddenly, the Study of Perspective pictures we saw on the first floor jump to memory again and become even more effective. There is no joking, no irony. You can be sure if Ai Weiwei is pointing his middle finger at something or someone, that “fuck you” really means “go fuck yourself”, and in that sign there is no inflation at all.
*All photos courtesy of Alessandro Moggi and Ai Weiwei Studio.
Ai Weiwei: Libero. curated by Arturo Galansino
Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi
Piazza Strozzi 1, Florence
September 23, 2016 – January 22, 2017