Review: Ai Weiwei in the Chapel, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

[Image: Iron Tree, 2014, Ai Weiwei. Photo: Jonty Wilde]


The reopening of the disused chapel of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which recently and deservedly won ArtFund’s Museum of the Year award, demonstrates itself to be a unique space for showing a collection of Ai Weiwei’s work. The work can be seen in a setting of tranquillity within the walls of the chapel and courtyard. Upon entering through the gates, you are immediately struck by the sculpture, Iron Tree, an immense rusted bronze casted tree. Each section of casted bark has been bolted together to form the structure. The sculpture is in a perpetual state of change and will gradually become rustier throughout the duration of its stay in the courtyard of the chapel.

Through the doors of the chapel, the idea of absence slowly dawns on you as an important component running through some of the work presented here. In a space where all the pieces are presented so peacefully, the reality of what the work represents politically, results in a disturbing effect upon viewing. At the furthest end of the chapel from the entrance there are two timelines, parallel to one another: one detailing the history of China whilst the other details life events of Ai Weiwei and his poet father, Ai Qing. Here, the highlights of Ai Weiwei’s recent years illustrate why he is not able visit to the exhibition. In 2011 his Shanghai studio was demolished and his passport confiscated – unable to leave China, the curatorial details for the installation had to be sent via email.

Opposite the timelines is Map of China, a ridged and towering sculpture made from discarded wooden timbers from demolished temples, ranging back to the Qing dynasty. Ai Weiwei’s interest in appropriating materials has been a long recurring aspect to his work. The flat surface face of the sculpture which looks upwards, shows the image of China. The surface also shows the process of how each wooden timber has been seamlessly joined together to create the piece. The work has a looming presence in the exhibition, especially in such close proximity China’s timeline, showing its history of political and economic turmoil. There is a cold and disconcerting atmosphere to this section of the show with which the political and striking boldness is presented here by the artist. It’s impossible to ignore and sets a tone for the rest of the exhibition.

The idea of being forbidden to leave your own country by the government is further reflected in For Fairytale – 1001 Chairs. Only a small portion of the installation is shown here, in comparison to the show for Documenta 12 which the work was originally made in response for. In For Fairytale – 1001 Chairs, Ai Weiwei represents 1001 people in China banned from leaving the country. Although Ai Weiwei is detained, he still remains to have a voice in the art world to express issues that affect him, but more importantly, other Chinese citizens on a wider scale. As every empty chair monotonously faces the same wall of the chapel interior, rowed behind one another, the space is open for visitors to sit. The invitation to sit perhaps muddies the political intentions of the work, encouraging visitors having personal reflections within such a peaceful space; however, it makes for an interesting and bold installation.

Work which shows Ai Weiwei’s more playful side is also solemnly presented in the show. The new piece, Lantern, is presented on a plinth in its own separate room in the chapel. The sculpture is a marble replication of the lanterns which Ai Weiwei hung on the security cameras surrounding his house and current studio in Beijing. Now here as a singular replica of the lanterns, the work holds more weighty physicality than the original lanterns and sits upon the plinth as a silent symbol of Ai Weiwei’s house arrest. In its original form, the lanterns were seen as a symbol to humorously mock the Chinese government. Here, seeing Lantern out of that immediate context, it serves as a sad reminder of the political situation of Ai Weiwei and many other Chinese citizens, which the artist brings to light.

Eleanor Roche

Ai Weiwei in the Chapel runs at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until November 2nd 2014. Visit for more details.

Filed under: Art & Photography