Ai Weiwei at Helsinki Art Museum

Published 1 October 2015

RA Magazine’s Gill Crabbe pays a visit to Ai Weiwei’s new wood-themed exhibition in Helsinki.

  • As the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy opened to critical acclaim last week, a concurrent show of his marks the reopening of the Helsinki Art Museum. Not surprisingly for this forest-filled country, the Finnish capital’s art museum spotlights wood as a theme.

    Works range across his career, from the first artwork made using wood (Violin, 1985) to the monumental reclaimed Qing house (White House, 2015). It is also a chance to compare Ai’s composite tree sculpture presented in the internal space of the gallery with those in the open-air setting of the RA’s courtyard. Tree (2010), which is made from different types of dead trees collected in Jiangxi, takes on an exuberant presence with such momentum that it looks set to burst through the roof, creating a playful tension with the structure of the gallery space.

  • A different kind of tension is seen in Through (2007), where structural beams salvaged from ancient temples in Guangdong province plunge violently through the tops of reclaimed tables from the Qing Dynasty, making powerful comments on changing attitudes to the protection of cultural heritage. It took 10 carpenters almost a year to create this piece, reconfiguring the material using the traditional skills that would have been employed in making the original objects – skills that have all but disappeared in modern China. Yet as curator Heli Harni points out in the catalogue: “Through Ai’s work ancient Chinese craftsmanship continues to live within the forms of contemporary art.” In that sense Through preserves the cultural heritage, as well as commenting on its demise.

    But for me the standout piece in this show is the painstakingly rebuilt white-painted Qing Dynasty residential building, White House (2015). Wandering through its temple-like portals, the house stands skeletal, as if bleached by the winds of time, a ghostless relic – and a poignant reminder of China’s distant past – that in this context is given new life.

    Ai Weiwei@Helsinki is at HAM Helsinki Art Museum until 28 February 2016.

    Gill Crabbe is sub-editor at RA Magazine.