I read that the Qing dynasty lasted around three centuries and established the boundaries enclosing the multicultural peoples who now comprise the modern Chinese state. Ai Weiwei‘s installation “Fragments” recycles hardwood pillars from Qing dynasty temples into branching interlacing and interlocking structures. Apparently, viewed from above, it maps the territories of modern China. Walking through it, it retains the sense of the sacred space, but opened out, regaining the feel of the forest that gave the wood. I felt small, like a child weaving in a game beneath arches made of adults’ arms. Stepping back and stretching up, I tried to draw the negative spaces made by the conjoined beams.
I worked in the exhibition hall in a small pocket book with fountain pen and waterbrush. Later, I dusted this with conte crayon to recreate some of the colours. These were the original sketches.
“Straight” too is a map of sorts, a landscape created from thousands of iron bars reclaimed from the twisted ruins of buildings that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Walking round did indeed feel like taking a journey. The contours mount successively to form hills with precipitous cliffs between one terrain and another. Then, turning the far corners and walking down the other side, the piece sweeps down and broadens like a costal plain or wide river estuary. My quick sketch does not capture the majesty of the work: as I started someone stood in front of me and I found myself incorporating her into the sketch, breaking the lines and reducing the sense of scale.
Round the walls are great panels documenting the 5000 or so predominantly young people who died in this quake, and who otherwise might have been forgotten. The exhibition notes describe that Ai Weiwei’s team undertook a citizen’s investigation to systematically name the deceased and to call to account the officials whose actions led to the use of poor quality building materials in schools in this seismically unstable region.
Apparently, it was in response to this that Ai Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days in 2011. He memorised every detail of his cell, recreating these as six half life size dioramas, a piece called “S.A.C.R.E.D.”. As voyeurs, we peer in through the two tiny cell windows to see him within – to see him standing, walking, sleeping, showering, shitting – at all times flanked by two officers, impassive, intensely not communicating, positioned always just within his personal space, dogging his every move.
This one view, of Ai Weiwei lying covered with a sheet, triangulated by the two immobile guards is intensely powerful. It calls to mind the emotionally intense vigil of the fourteenth station, the motionless figure on the slab draped with a cloth, the watchers and the enclosed space of the stone tomb.