Yorkshire Sculpture Park has a strange new tree. Solid yet graceful, inspired by the street vendors of Jingdezhen in southern China, who sell wood for its beauty, “Iron Tree” (2013) is a collection of fragments held together with bolts. It seems to have been in the wars, this tree, much like its maker Ai Weiwei.
Planted in front of the park’s newly restored chapel, the six-metre high sculpture is the first thing you see in an exhibition the Chinese artist has worked on from afar. Ai can’t travel outside China – his passport was confiscated after his arrest in 2011 – so plans and photographs have bounced across the net. As a result, 45 of the 1,001 Qing dynasty chairs Ai used to represent Chinese citizens at the 2007 Documenta in Kassel have been positioned inside the chapel, along with three other works. Visitors are invited to sit on the chairs, contemplating their scuff marks and their history.
“There is a sorrow in most of the works in this show,” says YSP’s director of programme, Clare Lilley. “I see all the time in this place the impact such ‘physical poetry’ can have on people. I hope people will sit and think about who might have sat on these chairs, and maybe think about their own place in the world.”
They can also dip into the poetry of Ai’s father, Ai Qing. Jailed as a “leftist” by the nationalists in the 1930s, he rose to prominence under Mao, only to be declared a “rightist” in the late 1950s and exiled with his family to Xinjiang soon after Ai’s birth. The show draws parallels between the resilience of spirit of father and son.
Ai may be unable to travel abroad, but there is no shortage of his work on show at present: in addition to YSP, a small exhibition has just opened at London’s Lisson Gallery. A retrospective entitled Ai Weiwei: According to What? has been touring America since 2012 and continues at the Brooklyn Museum until August. And Evidence, organised by the Berliner Festspiele at Martin-Gropius-Bau, claims to be his largest show yet.
For Ai, his art and his activism are one and the same. Since his return to Beijing from New York in 1993, he has used his art to mock the absurdities of China’s rulers, to expose corruption and to insist upon free speech. As a result, the punishment meted out to him by the Chinese authorities since 2009 – a beating at the hands of the security services that caused a brain haemorrhage; 81 days’ incarceration in 2011; and now constant surveillance – along with his own talent for grabbing attention, have made him a global brand, the best-known Chinese artist in the west. His critics accuse him of using politics to build his career and commercial worth: his small jade pieces at Lisson have price tags of up to €250,000.
In Berlin, I looked for signs of a commercial shift in his work – and found none. In the lobby, two marble surveillance cameras, replicas of those outside his house, “watch” as you stare up at 150 bicycles hung in the cupola to commemorate Yang Jia, a young Beijing man who was initially accused of riding an unlicensed bicycle, but ended up being sentenced to death for murdering six policemen. Enter the exhibition proper and you find “Stools” (2014): 6,000 well-worn examples of this household staple dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, packed into the building’s atrium. Like the chairs at YSP, they speak of a past lives and a way of life fast disappearing from China.
The show includes some Duchamp-inspired pieces Ai made in New York in the 1980s and some early films and photography, but most of the work dates from 2009 onwards. Recently, he has focused on his arrest and detention: “81” (2014), with its bright lights, filthy hand basin and padded walls, is a full-size replica of the room where he was imprisoned. A series of exquisite objects – handcuffs reproduced in huali wood, crystal or jade; lanterns made of the marble used in Mao’s tomb – are the objective correlatives of his ordeal and continuing harassment.
If you worry that this fusion of the personal and political is becoming an obsession, “Taxi Window Crank” (2012), a small ready-made on show both in Berlin and at Lisson, should reassure you. It is accompanied by the splendidly titled 18-minute film “Discard the old path of closed doors and rigidity and reject evil attempts to change the Party’s banner” (2012), which clears up any confusion.
In the film, shot largely from the back of a taxi, a series of drivers explain to their passenger (Ai?) how during the Party Congress that brought Xi Jinping to power in 2012, cabs were ordered to remove all window winders to stop dangerous activists driving by the Great Hall of the People and flinging leaflets at delegates from the taxis’ windows. Bus windows too were screwed shut, but the passenger in Ai’s deadpan film engages in a small amount of subversion using a car key as a screwdriver.
To judge from the Berlin show, Ai is as adept as ever at pointing up absurdity with a light touch, but also of exposing corruption with absolute seriousness. He continues to add to the powerful sculpture series made from steel bars that buckled in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, killing and injuring thousands of schoolchildren.
In Richard Vine’s 2008 book, New China, New Art, he distinguishes the artist from his contemporaries by highlighting his irony and wit. As his world has grown darker it is easy to forget the centrality of these qualities in Ai’s work but in Berlin his music video “Dumbass” (2013), which splices realistic scenes of his imprisonment with the soldiers’ apparent fantasies (including a shaven-headed Ai sashaying about in drag), reminds us that the impish wit lives on.
In an interview with Time Out London this month, Ai suggests that the authorities have become more relaxed towards him. However, it seems unlikely that he will give them cause to like his art.
Ai Weiwei is at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, until July 7, gropiusbau.de; Lisson Gallery until July 19, lissongallery.com; Yorkshire Sculpture Park until November 2, ysp.co.uk