Ai WeiWei in Seville: Resistance and Tradition in a 14th-century monastery

Ai Weiwei, CAAC, Sevilla, China, Chinese

The Chinese artist-activist has a strong Social Media presence, despite his government’s attempts to silence him. WeiWei won’t be at his exhibition; he’s not allowed to travel outside China.

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…)

La Cartuija, CAAC, Ai Weiwei, monastery, Seville, Sevilla, Carthusian, Columbus

The Cartuja monastery in Seville, where the Ai WeiWei exhibition is being held. It used to be a ceramic factory, which segues perfectly with WeiWei’s passion for porcelain.

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.

sunflower seeds, Ai WeiWei, Chinese, China, porcelain, Tate Modern

The famous Sunflower Seeds – each one of the 3,300,000-odd is handpainted.

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.

Ai WeiWei, sunflower seeds, contemporary art, CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla

A close-up of those tiny works of art – it took 1,600 people two and half years to paint them.

Descending Light, Ai WeiWei, China, Chinese, CAAC, La Cartuja, Sevilla

Descending Light looks like a Chinese dragon; its distorted shape reflects the grotesqueness of the Communist regime.

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.

Ai WeiWei

Photos from the artist’s blog, before it was shut down by the Chinese government in 2009.

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.

Ai WeiWei, La Cartuja, CAAC, Sevilla

These vases (pre-paint) may or may not be 7,000 years old – you decide.

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.

Ai Weiwei, Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain

The porcelain jars are painted so that they look different from every angle. Now you see Ghost Gu Coming Down The Mountain…

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.

Ai WeiWei, Ghost Gu Coming Down the Mountain

…now you don’t.

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.

29M in Sevilla

Today there was a general strike here in Spain, called by the two main trade unions, the CCOO and CGT, to protest against the new PP government’s labour reforms.

I wanted to go on the march here in Seville, which was leaving from various points in the centre and converging on Parque Maria Luisa, but my son was sick so he stayed home from school (they had a minimal staff working).

However I did manage to slip away for a few hours in the afternoon (thanks, suegra) to see the last part of the day’s events. I didn’t take my camera, to be more discreet, as some people can be self-conscious when they see a lens. The iPhone did the job fine.

As usual, the press quoted widely varying estimates of turnout in Seville, ranging from 10,000 (according to the police) to 100,000 (say the unions). In terms of participation, the national average was 77%, with administration 57% and construction and industry 97%. For full details from the two main unions, see here.

When I arrived (by metro, uncrowded) lots of people were walking up Calle San Fernando from the park, so I thought I’d missed the whole thing. They were still carrying their flags, and I could see more in the distance, so I walked against the flow of people towards the Prado.

There were still many sitting and standing around in Plaza San Juan de Austria (next to the Jardines de Murillo), with plenty of wacky backy smells in the air. As usual, there were all ages, from tiny babies to the elderly, with plenty of beards and bikes…

and some great slogans…

"No to reforms, yes to the (right) way (of doing things)," or something like that.

and some great slogans on bikes.

"So many people without homes, so many homes without people."

All colours of flags, too – as well as the red of the trade unions, the Republican and the Andalucian. The man’s tabard says “Quieren acabar con todo”, a snappier version of the strike’s slogan – “Quieren acabar con los derechos sociales y laborales” – “They want to destroy our social and labour rights”.

I could hear some noise coming from the Prado, a park with iron railings around it, so I went to investigate. Speakers on a platform covered with trade union flags were blaring out music, and a huge bar had been set up, serving drinks and paella to protestors.

The atmosphere was very cordial – friends chatting in groups, a few discussions with raised voices, but mostly in excitement rather than anger. (I know not to worry about people shouting at each other in Spain any more – it doesn’t mean they’re about to hit each other, it just means they’re having animated discussion.)

Then a heavy rock band started up, singing about the pigs (police, not jamon), death and destruction. They told the audience this was the first time they’d played to so many people, and it was pretty obvious why. They were shit.

This friendly atmosphere – there was a children’s playground right next to the bar, and flag-waving mixed happily with swings and slides – was a welcome contrast to what my husband had told me when I was heading to the metro station to come into town. Someone had thrown a stone through the window of a restaurant in the city centre, narrowly missing him and others.

The man had then run off towards Avenida de la Constitution, hotly pursued by a group including said husband. This was where the marchers were, so the vandal ran straight into the hands of the police, who were present in numbers to keep watch over the protestors. He was one of the five arrested in Seville today.

It remains to be seen whether President Rajoy will change his plans – his austerity budget, with 30-40bn euros of cuts, will be announced tomorrow – because of today’s marches attended by nearly a million people in 111 towns all over Spain. Half a million people were said to have packed into Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

What did seem clear from what I saw and heard, is that for most people the strike wasn’t a one-off. It was just the beginning of popular protest against widely unpopular reforms.

A monument to fascism

Yesterday an announcement was made about the recommendations proposed by a special committee of “experts” (whose credibility is a cause for much discussion), set up to look into the Valle de los Caidos (the Valley of the Fallen), the massive, sinister mausoleum outside Madrid where the remains of General Franco are buried.

The monument was built under his orders in the 1940s and 50s by tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom ended up being buried there, due to maltreatment, illness, starvation and poisoning; it was said to be “like a Nazi concentration camp”. In total, over 30,000 bodies are interred at the site, which is also home to a monastery.

Far-right-wing sympathisers, and the few Falange left, gather there every year on the anniversary of Franco’s death; a monument to Fascism, it is detested by the majority of Spaniards.

The commission recommended that the dictator’s remains be moved to a place of his family’s choosing; that the other remains be identified, and their names inscribed on a list of the fallen; and that effectively this grim place, with a huge cross towering over it, be reinvented as a place honouring the dead on both sides of Spain’s Civil War. Apparently, the church’s permission is also required, since the basilica where the Generalissimo is buried is a religious site.

The official reason given for wanting to disinter the Fascist dictator’s remains is that the Valle is only for people who died in the war, which Franco didn’t.

It has also been suggested to have an interpretation centre, so people can understand what happened, and why so many people (plus the hundreds of thousands more who died all around the country) lost their lives.

The reaction to this news on Twitter was extraordinary, with every extreme of view represented: people saying, aren’t there more important things to think about, like the unemployed; it’s in the past, we need to move on;  it’s not worth spending money on; who cares (mostly younger people said this).

Some of the reactions, about what should be done with this much-reviled man’s remains, were interesting. I think their opinions are far more relevant than my own, those of an outsider. These are the people whose relatives were killed in the War, or under the Dictatorship – it’s easy to forget that pretty much every family was affected by what happened during those 40-odd years.
(I have translated them roughly for those whose Spanish might not manage.)

“Que le den un pico y una pala a la familia Franco. Ya joderia pagar una milionada por el translado”

(They should give Franco’s family a bucket and shovel. I’m not bloody paying a packet to have him moved.)

“Lo que tiene que hacer es tirarlo a una fosa comun.”

(What they should do is throw him in a mass grave.)

“Que pais. La iglesia catolica, complica del dictador Franco, es la que tiene que decidir si se trasladan del Valle de los Caidos.”

(What a country. The Catholic church, which was complicit with the dictator Franco, are the ones who must decide if he should be transferred from the Valle de los Caidos.)

“No es ningun faraon ni victima de la Guerra para esta alli.”

(He shouldn’t be there – he’s not a War victim or a pharaoh.)

“Inadmisible que un dictador tiene un monumento.”

(It’s outrageous that a dictator should have a monument.)

“Espero que pronto los familiares de los que el asesino encuentran a sus muertos.”

(I hope the relatives of those whom he killed are able to find their loved ones soon.)

“Valle de los Caidos para viviendas sociales.

(Make the Valle de los Caidos into social housing.)

“Indecente, que poco respeto para los muertos.”

(Terrible, no respect for the dead.)

“Por que coño tienen que elegir la Iglesia si los restos de Franco se quedan en el Valle de lo Caidos? ¿Quien coño creen que son?”

(Why the hell does the Church get to decide if Franco’s remains stay in the Valle de los Caidos? Who the hell do they think they are?)

“Los curas van a coger las palas?”

(Are the priests going to pick up shovels?)

“El Valle de los Caidos es patrimonio nacional. ¿Pq hay que consultar a la iglesia sobre el traslado de Franco? ¿O es que le han beatificado?”

(The Valle de los Caidos is national heritage. Why does the Church have to be consulted about moving Franco’s remains? Or have they beatified him?)

Most agree it is unlikely to happen under Mariano Rajoy’s about-to-be-formed PP government. And that the money could be better spent. But however many other, more worthy causes there are, isn’t it a good idea to try to rectify the past by ensuring that a brutal dictator is no longer honoured in such an extravagant visual way?

The Day After

In occupied Gaul, one tiny village held out against the Romans...

See that little red spot at the bottom? That’s us!

It’s now just over 24 hours since we knew for sure that our next Prime Minister would be Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP – the Conservative Popular Party.

With the country in an unprecedented economic mess, people are desperate for him to wave a magic wand and make all their problems go away: no more unemployment, no more businesses folding, no more houses being repossessed. Indeed, today there has been a Twittersphere call for him to resign: #dimiterajoy which does seem a little premature, considering his length of time in the job.

Even the most short-lived English monarchs got more time on their thrones, before being sent to the Tower.

For those who didn’t have the pleasure of (or time for) wading through the newspapers today, with their pages and pages of reports, facts, figures, statistics, graphs and pie-charts, I will distill the pertinent facts as follows (for more detail on my home region, Andalucia, see my other blog).

The PP won embarrassingly easily, as predicted, taking 44.6% of the vote, with the Socialist PSOE winning less than 30% – the price for shocking mismanagement of the economy by current PM (in name only) Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

I learned a new word over the past couple of days – escaño – seat in parliament. The PP got 186 to 110 for the PSOE. The Izquierda Unisa (IU), the “United Left” (an interesting concept in itself, given their history of the exact opposite) did well, winning nine new escaños – its share went up from two held in the previous parliament. By the vagaries of the Spanish electoral system,

the IU won nearly 700,000 more votes than the CiU, the Catalan nationalist party,  yet it has five fewer seats;

the UPyD suffered a similar fate, winning the same number of seats as a party with nearly a quarter as many votes. Many people today are complaining via Twitter about the unfairness of the vote allocation, and the skewed result which does not seem representative of the people’s wishes. The IU leader said they should have won 25 seats.

On the map showing the results, with the two parties’ colours, you’ll have noticed two small patches of red in the sea of blue. The one in the top right is Barcelona, and the last surviving outpost of Socialism in this national election is right here in Seville (the others are regional parties). Despite losing 200,000 votes, the PSOE managed to hang on to its traditional heartland. It has always been the main city of left-leaning Andalucia, which fared badly under Franco, who saw it as full of two peasants whose produce filled his plate after a hard day’s hunting, and nothing more.

Friends here in Seville have compared this map to the map of Gaul showing one indomitable village which held out against the Romans, which is a delightful if not particularly accurate comparison if you grew up loving Asterix books, as I did.

I’m going to mention a one-to-watch: the IU’s new man in Malaga: Alberto Garzon.

He’s a classic example of the over-qualified, highly intelligent young people who make up such a depressingly large proportion of the five million parados here in Spain.

An unemployed economist, Alberto is just 26 years old, and was a leader of the 15M pro-democracy movement in Malaga. He managed to win 9% of the vote in Malaga province – over 60,000 votes. He sounds like a hope for the future: let’s hope he can make his voice heard in the Popular melee which will be our next parliament, with a nobbled opposition.

Going back to Rajoy, one of his first actions at his party meeting this evening was to appoint Soraya Saenz de Santamaria as the person to oversee the handover of power, scheduled for 13 December, so the PP can start geting on with the job in hand before we all go off to eat our mariscos and drink our cava.

I have a serious problem with Soraya. She looks like she should be bossing the sixth form hockey team about. Her expression and general demeanour are those of a mean teenager who likes stirring up trouble. She likes to badger – at least, she did when she was in the opposition; to be fair, that was her job. Let’s see if she changes now she’s in power. She’ll probably be even more smug and begging-for-a-slap.

In the meantime we watch and wait, with baited breath, for our socks to be knocked off by the brilliance and innovativeness of Rajoy’s nation-saving economic measures. ¡A por ellos, Mariano!

20N: some handy statistics

Alfredo Rubalcaba, the next leader of Spain's opposition.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain's next prime minister.

Here are some (very) quick facts and figures about the Spanish Election: which takes place today.

Main parties
Percentage of vote PP (Partido Popular, Conservatives) are expected to win: 45%
Seats expected to win: 190-195
Percentage of vote PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Socialists) are expected to win: 30%
Seats expected to win: 116-121
Date expected for handover of power (PSOE to PP): 13 December

Total number of voters
35.7 million

Unemployment in Spain
Total unemployment: 21.5% (five million)
Youth unemployment in Spain: 45%
Number of people out of work: 1 in 4
Number of households with all members out of work: 1 in 10 (1.5 million)
Number of businesses which closed in 2011: 1 in 8

Spanish economy
Foreign debt: 1.9 trillion euros (41,366 euros per person)
Interest paid on long-term bonds (borrowing rates): 6.7% (Italy is paying 7%)
Money owed: to Germany: 131.7 billion euros; to France: 112 billion euros; to the US: 49.6 billion euros; to the UK 74.9 billion euros; to Italy: 22.3 billion euros

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