Seville is a city which basks in its past glories. Mudejar architectural gems, endless churches built with the riches from the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries, religious paintings and portraits by the likes of Murillo, Zurbaran, Valdes Leal… classical art from yesteryear is far more highly prized than today’s – in my opinion.
After living for ten years before I came here in London, home to some of the world’s greatest museums and galleries (I’m not being biased, it’s true), I’ve missed the opportunity to see world-class contemporary art here in Seville. Not that I was at Tate Modern every weekend while I lived in the city; you never appreciate what’s on your doorstep. (Excuses, excuses – too tired, the schlep, the tube, the cost, the weather…)
So it was with considerable excitement that I read about Ai WeiWei’s exhibition at the CAAC, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, which happens to be 10 minutes from my house. This is WeiWei’s first ever museum exhibition in Spain, so it’s quite a coup for provincial Seville, winning out over cosmopolitan Madrid.
The CAAC is housed in a 14th-century Carthusian monastery, restored as headquarters for the 92 Expo. Its changing fortunes have seen the complex of buildings play host to Christopher Columbus as he planned his voyages; later, to the explorer’s remains; to Napoleon’s troops; and then to a ceramic factory founded by an Englishman called Charles Pickman.
Although the CAAC holds several exhibitions every year (the site is large enough to fit in three or four at once), I have to confess to acute laziness about visiting art shows unless I’ve already heard of the artist (I like to think my knowledge is about the same as any 40-something ex-Londoner media bod’s – reasonable).
Ai WeiWei, however, is in another league from the names normally appearing at this Andalucian contemporary art centre. He is hugely famous throughout the world, thanks to his insistence on standing up to the repressive Chinese government. A physically imposing man, broad and bearded, WeiWei has been imprisoned, placed under house arrest, beaten by police, accused of tax evasion, banned from the internet, and his studio has been demolished. His means of protest are digital, as well as tangible – he used to be a prolific blogger, and still uses Twitter (85,000+ tweets, in Chinese, nearly 200,000 followers).
After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which saw thousands of children die in collapsed school buildings constructed from sub-standard materials, WeiWei compiled a list of the dead students, with their names and ages – the government had refused to put a number on the total killed in the disaster – and was photographed standing in front of it. The artist brandishes the hidden, shameful truth in their face, taunting them. Another of his works is a video featuring people saying in various languages, “Fuck the Motherland”. Weiwei is a sharp and insistent thorn in the authorities’ side – more a ceremonial dagger, in fact. He loves to poke his captors (he’s not allowed out of China), tormenting them, jabbing them. Supremely provocative.
WeiWei’s defiance and stubbornness come across in much of his work, as does his respect for Chinese artisan techniques, and his ardent desire that they should not be lost. He wants to emphasise their social importance and aesthetic beauty compared to the mass-production of cheap plastic goods which flood out of China. The artist has his own kiln for creating ceramic pieces. But he’s also intrigued by the relationship between real and fake – how do we know which is which? Does it matter? Should art be about commercial value?
All these strands come together in this exhibition, from his love of porcelain, to his refusal to be gagged by the Chinese authorities.
Most famous are the Sunflower Seeds, housed in the chapel just inside the church. These are raked into a perfect rectangle, protected behind a glass screen, with a line on the ground which you can’t cross to get a closer look. Result? You can’t see them – as each seed is hand-painted (saying each Chinese person is an individual, not part of a vast collective), all three million-odd of them, this is a shame. There’s a video made by Tate Modern - where they were first installed in the Turbine Hall (100 million) and could be walked, sat and lain on – showing how they’re made by thousands of people in a town in eastern China, each striped painted by hand. But not being able to look at them close-up, even a small sample in a glass box on the wall, is a shame. So here’s a sneak peek.
Although these “seeds” are the most famous part of the show, the most captivating, for me, was Descending Light. This is huge coiled lamp, like a collapsed snail, made from red glass beads strung onto a metal frame, with light bulbs inside. It took 12 people two weeks to assemble it, and how grateful we should be, as it is a stunning piece, perfectly positioned in the high-walled chapel with its soaring ceiling, and a shiny marble floor to reflect the lines of red light.
Continuing past this, on the left in the Sacristy, is a room with 12 screens, showing over 7,000 photos from WeiWei’s blog posts. These may seem random, but they give a good overview of WeiWei’s day-to-day life and interests – food, architecture, design, his own body (belly shots), his art, and his friends, fans and family. My favourite was a group of naked men, including the artist, jumping in the air, grinning like idiots, each with a Chinese zodiac animal’s head on the floor in front of him. The collection of animals, Zodiac Heads, is currently on a world tour.
Two other works really stood out, for me. The first is the Colored Vases, which may or may not be neolithic, as they’re described – appropriately, they are displayed in the oldest part of the monastery, the Capilla de Magdalena. The old/new jars are dipped in industrial paint, each in different colours. Has he taken priceless antiquities and desecrated them? Or has he put his own mark on a piece of pottery, whatever its age, thereby creating another type of value? It’s an interesting conundrum, and makes the viewer think.
The last piece I’ll mention (there are further, less striking ceramic works, and videos – plenty more to enjoy than I can fit in here) is the room of painted jars, laid out nearly in rows; a collaboration with Romanian artist Serge Spitzer. The design is based on the popular story of a legendary warrior, Gu, who was sent on a mission to rescue another fighter.
It’s not until you walk all the way around them (“I tell people to read the panel, otherwise they just look and then walk out again,” said the lady guard, frustrated, although even the text doesn’t explain the trick clearly) that you see the artists’ ruse. The jars are painted with a progressively wider vertical band of design as you walk along the rows, so that from one corner they seem entirely painted, while from another they are perfectly, plainly white, and between there are degrees.
Chinese artesan production is also disappearing, little by little, he seems to be telling us, bringing the impending loss of centuries of tradition to our attention. It’s very clever, and I’d love to take my kids to see these jars, although I’d be terrified they’d break one. We can’t look at the seeds close-up, but we can risk kicking a china vase. Hmm.
WeiWei is a dissident for the digital age, who hasn’t lost sight of his country’s history – he’s looking back as well as forwards. If you’re as intrigued as I was by this extraordinarily brave, headstrong man, then don’t miss the award-winning 2012 documentary about him, Never Sorry, now showing at Seville’s only VO cinema, but also available on DVD. His personal life is unconventional, and the footage (only audio, but still shocking) of him being attacked in his hotel room in the middle of the night by police, is undeniably powerful. Go see.
Ai WeiWei: Resistance and Tradition is at the CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla, until 23 June. It is open Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 9pm, Sunday 11am-3pm (closed Monday), and costs 1.80 euro. Entry is free Tuesday to Friday 7pm-9pm, and all day Saturday.