Ai Weiwei’s Self-Centred Activism
Ai Weiwei, one of the most high-profile and controversial living artists, hardly needs introducing.
Ai Weiwei, Two Figures (2018). Exhibition view: Ai Weiwei: Intertwine, Fundação de Serralves – Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto (22 July 2021–9 July 2022). Courtesy Fundação de Serralves - Museu de Arte Contemporânea. Photo: © Filipe Braga.
Some see his outspokenness as a vital condemnation of human rights violations, while others accuse him of using contemporary political issues to centre himself, with works concerning the Mediterranean refugee crisis coming under particular criticism.
Ai's activism is certainly difficult to classify. His artistic output spans genres, rendering his identity as an artist equally complex. To add to his diverse repertoire is Ai Weiwei: Intertwine (23 July 2021–9 July 2022) at the Fundacão de Serralves in Porto, which attests to the artist's growing involvement in climate activism.
Divided into three parts, perhaps the most spectacular component of Intertwine is Pequi Tree (2018–2020), a 32-metre-high iron replica of a hardwood Caryocar brasiliense found in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Described as both warning and testament to what humankind stands to lose as climate disaster escalates, the sculpture towers above the wooded Casa de Serralves Park, weighing a gargantuan 53.7 tonnes in corten steel.
Pequi Tree is primarily a reference to present-day clearings of the Brazilian rainforest for industrial agriculture, but it is undeniably intended as an object of poetry. Ai describes the work's fabrication as a mythological journey: a romanticisation of an industrial process that charts an odyssey of the piece across geographical distances.
Ai worked with a team of mostly Chinese artisans to make fibre-reinforced plastic moulds of the tree in question. Given its incredible size, this was only possible in fragments. The moulds, numbering 768, were later shipped to the Tang and Yi counties in the Hebei province of northern China to be cast in iron, and finally reassembled into a single object for exhibition in Portugal.
Also scattered throughout the park is the 'Iron Roots' (2019) series: seven individual iron castings of various root samples also sourced from a forest in Brazil. They appear as creaturely forms, positioned across the park like anthropomorphised characters, with names such as Mr. Painting and Fly given by Ai's young son, Ai Lao.
Like Pequi Tree, 'Iron Roots' emphasises the significance of technical skill in the works presented as part of Intertwine, and certainly their craftsmanship is impressive. Regardless, they maintain a tenuous conceptual connection to the notion that forest ecosystems are vulnerable to human interference.
As a whole, Ai's analysis of climate crisis is in conflict with his practice in this show. The materially dense fabrication process of both Pequi Tree and 'Iron Roots', for example, undertaken across vast geographic distances and reliant on the extraction of heavy metals is glaringly inconsistent with Ai's critique of environmental degradation.
Intertwine elevates the poetic, but does so by burying a central, and highly critical, message.
Elsewhere inside the museum is a final trio of works. On one wall hangs Mutuophagia (2018), a self-portrait of the artist, nude and supine, lying in a foetal position on a bed of battered tropical fruit. On the opposite wall is a 26-minute video excerpt of Tree (2021), documentation of casting the pequi tree-as-sculpture, but also of Ai's arboreal body, forcing a relation between artist and subject as though one is a natural extension of the other.
In the centre of the room sits Two Figures (2018), a plaster cast of the artist's body, reclined nude on a mattress next to that of a woman resting on her side. The mood of the piece is ambiguous: it is neither an erotic scene, nor is it entirely peaceful. Red ormosia and black seeds spill from Ai's head in reference to his arrest in China, where he sustained a severe head injury, but also in an allusion to the seeds of a tree.
Once again, Ai is figured here as the object of the casting process, likening himself to the iron pequi standing outside the museum walls. This self-centring confuses the Brazilian forest as the main concern of the exhibition and obscures any stated intention that this exhibition offers a serious reflection on the devastating effects of ecological change.
Despite the elegant presentation of Intertwine, its cogency as an alarm for climate disaster could have been drawn out further to convey greater urgency with regard to deforestation.
Portugal is not a neutral place in which to contemplate corruption in a former colony, and an explicit connection made between Portuguese colonial history and contemporary deforestation in Brazil may have served to reinforce the central idea of the exhibition: that environmental change happens as a result of industrial progress.
Moreover, as wildfires rage in several parts of the globe, one wonders about the residual effects of addressing a pressing environmental concern with an artistic process that demonstrates no meaningful engagement with the questions posed.
What, for instance, has become of the dense plastic moulds, and how has the shipping of people and materials across continents been accounted for? Intertwine elevates the poetic, but does so by burying a central, and highly critical, message. —[O]