Ai Weiwei And Richard Long Conceptual vs The Physical Qualities Of Materials

Ai Weiwei

Threaded throughout the Lisson gallery’s mission statement, its essays on exhibited artists Ai Weiwei and Richard Long, is that very problematic and fluffy term ‘Conceptualism’: We’re a conceptual gallery, showing conceptual artists making conceptual artworks. It’s a jarring term signifying works where the root or source of the ‘art’ content is non-physical, an intangible brainchild of the great artist’s mind (open to vast interpretation by the viewers’ minds) and in the most pretentious cases allows such ‘controversial’ pieces (term used diplomatically) as Emin’s unmade bed to have ever been conceived. Yet regarding Ai Weiwei and Richard Long the works originate not from some ‘idea’ plucked from the stratosphere, but their very immediate physical surroundings; the former’s house arrest and ban from leaving China, and the latter’s plunging himself into remote walks and natural landscapes. The results are astoundingly thoughtful, affecting, and far from the dreaded ‘lofty’ ideals we more commonly are required to associate with conceptualism.

For a distinguishing characteristic of both these artists is the keen attention to the physical qualities of materials, and, surprisingly, aesthetic beauty. Populating Weiwei’s gallery are regular objects and items encountered closely by himself, rendered in unusual material: cosmetic bottles from jade, coat hangers from crystal, his father’s armchair from marble, handcuffs from Huali wood. Beautifully crafted, bespoke pieces, they communicate the human, but inflated, value attached to such items especially while under house arrest. Whether we’ve also experienced confinement or not, the point still applies to us: a devastating commentary on our imbalanced attention to unimportant commodities.

Richard Long doesn’t immediately strike one as the natural companion to Weiwei, yet the comparison makes for keen similarities in his attitude towards material and aesthetic beauty, combined with similar humility; texts and photographs on the walls of the gallery detail specific walks and journeys undergone in remote areas of the world. Like the commodities captured in semi-precious materials, the photos and poetic responses pasted onto the walls act as proxy to the actual physical experience endured by the artist. The photographs leave hints at the spectacular aesthetics experienced, and are in themselves, small, domesticated, diluted versions of the real thing.

Both present balanced counterpoints to the idea of physical constraint, and the smallness of ourselves within the world – making for arguably a more existential than generic conceptually themed show. Long’s explicitly outlined walks – ‘A 16 day mountain walk in the lower engadine from Tschlin to Zuoz. Switzerland 2013’ – is a human’s capturing of a tiny part of the world; his stone arrangements within the enormous landscapes communicate just how insignificant we are, in awe of the natural beauty existing happily without us. In a sense we are as constrained in the world as Weiwei felt within his house.

Long’s photographs and site specific text pieces represent only traces of the artwork, which was itself in the main one act by one man witnessed presumably by no one; can it really be a proper Artwork with a capital A only if it’s existence is proven and documented to the folks back home? The balance of importance in this light is not the reverence afforded the landscape used for the piece, but the direct evidence convincing us he actually did it. Bearing this in mind, Weiwei’s ‘Study of Perspective’ subverts this phenomenon by sending up the tourist tradition of photographing ourselves in front of all the most clichéd of visitor hotspots around the world; his prominent middle finger photographed repeatedly flipping the bird at the Mona Lisa, at St Marks in Venice, at an enormous cruise liner. It is made apparent that we don’t actually revere our own world culture: we collect the pieces, conquering them by standing in front of, not addressing or facing these pinnacles of cultural heritage. Weiwei’s finger does it for us, directly saying “Up yours”, mirroring our own indifferent attitude. Both Weiwei and Long make is shamefully apparent to us how we don’t believe in the importance of artistic achievement or heritage unless we ‘capture’ it for ourselves. Like Long’s evidential photographs, the art exists for us, having been collected and brought home.

It is interesting that the pieces of note mentioned above are not given precedence in the Lisson gallery’s blurbs, which instead focuses on grander scale pieces such as bicycles welded together in enormous pattern, and gas masks of marble (Weiwei), or the enormous slate installation by Long, one of only three pieces which can be said to be artworks in their own right rather than recordings (the latter example proving the points argued above about our own self interests and materialism). Yet it is the less showy pieces, the sequences of photographs by both, and the domestic items by Weiwei, that are the source of more powerful ideas. The combination of both artists have actually proved an incredibly moving and humbling starting point for investigating our own attitudes to art and our continuing eating up of the world and its history.

 Words/Photo: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014


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