UTA Fine Arts is proud to present Cao / Humanity, a new exhibition by the acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, which will open at UTA Artist Space on October 4th. Cao / Humanity, in tandem with two other Los Angeles exhibitions, marks an exciting milestone for both Ai and the city of Los Angeles, where he is exhibiting for the first time. Having designed the new UTA Artist Space location in Beverly Hills, Ai’s Cao / Humanity will offer a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors—an expansive celebration of his artistic practice in a space he himself designed.
Central to the exhibition is a new collective performance project by Ai Weiwei: Humanity (2018). This global campaign is a reaction to the tens of millions displaced by war, famine and climate crises, and gives a personal and group voice in support of the idea that humanity is one. Visitors to UTA Artist Space will have the opportunity to record a reading of an excerpt from Ai’s book Humanity in the gallery. Those messages will then be presented publicly at UTA Artist Space on a monitor updated in real time. The project seeks to involve people from all backgrounds, and Ai Weiwei invites people from anywhere to record themselves on social media and lend their voice.
Upon entering the main gallery space, the viewer is immediately confronted by the towering Iron Tree Trunk (2015). There is a long tradition in Chinese culture of scholars collecting natural objects which are admired for their aesthetic and poetic qualities. The sculpture, measuring over 15 feet in height and weighing nearly two tons, is cast from the mold of an old tree trunk brought down from the mountains of southern China. Iron Tree Trunk is presented in a natural, untreated state, maintaining the metal’s natural patina.
The exhibition’s title, however, refers to a much smaller plant. “Cao” means “grass” in Mandarin Chinese, but with a shift in the intonation it can also be an expletive, to be employed in the most pejorative sense (e.g., it is often followed by “your mother”). In one sense, this is a gesture toward a code-speak employed by Chinese internet users avoiding censorship. Taken another way, we are reminded of the simple fact that there is no plant more abused by us than grass, which, even when lovingly cared for, is always being chopped up and trampled on, or insulted by preening neighbors. And yet grass is everywhere, ubiquitous, endlessly resilient and quietly beautiful at the lower margins of the frame.
And so, in the center of the exhibition is the sculpture Cao (2014), which stands less than eight inches tall, but is no less monumental for it. It’s comprised of 727 individual tufts, sculpted in marble, which ll the center of the space. Where the statue or the column rises up, here the marble sprawls out horizontally, the stone’s implications of nobility concentrated not in a single heroic gesture but in thousands of anonymous blades—each valuable, each possessed of dignity and worth.
The exhibition highlights Ai’s engagement with and mastery of the medium of marble. Camera with Plinth (2018) illustrates the surveillance state that has become the norm in contemporary society. The camera is placed atop a sculptural element inspired by a 1500-year old oil lamp from the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 –577) that call s to mind the shape of traditional pedestals used to display the busts of prominent figures. After Ai’s arrest and detention in 2011, over 20 surveillance cameras were positioned around his home in Beijing. Marble Lantern (2014) recalls the traditional Chinese lanterns which Ai hung by the cameras in a mocking acknowledgment of his surveillance. Another marble work that gestures towards the authoritarian state is Ceiling Lamp with Stars (2014), a nod to the Communist Party elite of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when such lamps were found only in the homes of high-ranking officials. During this time, Ai’s father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, was exiled to the far northwest of China.
As urban space is being transformed across China and ancient buildings are demolished in order to make way for new developments, the artist takes the disappearing wooden door design and reproduces it in everlasting marble with Marble Doors (2012). In Hands Without Bodies (2018), the artist explicitly removes the implication of genuine affection from the gesture, the people beyond vanished into pure transaction.
Marble Plate (2009) is based on a curved Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) plate in Ai Weiwei's personal collection. Similar to his furniture works, such as Table with Two Legs on the Wall (1997), Ai has subverted both the form and function of the original. With Marble Plate, only half of the plate can be used at any one time, while the other half remains empty. The work brings to mind Marcel Duchamp's Door: II, rue Larrey (1927) in which one door is used between two doorways.
After receiving his passport in 2015, Ai Weiwei relocated to Berlin, Germany, where an influx of refugees were fled from war stricken areas such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Ai’s visit to the island of Lesvos in Greece, which many migrants attempted to reach seeking safety in Europe, inspired the artist to document the global refugee crisis, culminating in his documentary feature Human Flow (2017). Ai recalled seeing the discarded evidence of the dangerous sea journey attempted by the thousands seeking shelter in Europe. Tyre (2017) depicts a stack of life preserver rings carved from marble, a monument to those lost to the sea.
Marble, in all its haughty glory, is apparent even from a distance—the very fact of the material is immediately striking. Ai’s works in porcelain feature a similar process in reverse. Where the familiarity of marble is thrown into immediate juxtaposition with the forms that it’s been given, Ai’s porcelain plates and vases are immediately, comfortingly familiar. It’s only when you are close enough, and can clearly view the figures, that Blue-and-White Porcelain Plates (2017) can be seen to track the experiences of migrants Ai encountered while filming Human Flow. These are the trials of Odysseus, seen today in the lives of Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, among many others fleeing war across the sea—themes seen again in the towering Vases with Refugee Motif as a Pillar (2017).
Produced in red-and-white porcelain, Dragon Vase (2017) is a near exact replica of a Ming Dynasty, Xuande period (1426 –1435) vase bearing the motif of a dragon. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynastic periods, the emperor’s motif was the five-clawed dragon. Members of the imperial court were allowed use of a four-clawed dragon and, in the case of imperial gifts, one of the five claws would be removed. Improper use or wear of the dragon was punishable by death. Ai’s reinterpretation of the Ming vase is only distinguishable through the subtle addition of a sixth claw. The blue-and-white Xuande period ‘Dragon jar’, on which Ai’s Dragon Vase is based, sold for one of the highest prices recorded at auction. Dragon Vase also references earlier blue-and-white Ai Weiwei-made replicas such as Ghost Gu (2007) or a variety of Qing Dynasty, Kangxi period (1662 –1722) and Qianlong period (1736–1795) pieces.
Like marble and porcelain, jade is a unique material with a long and significant cultural history in China. The precious stone has been treasured for thousands of years for its aesthetic beauty and use in ornamental and ritual practices; archaeological findings have uncovered jade ceremonial objects dating back to the Neolithic Period (5000 –3000 BCE). Referring to Ai Weiwei’s 81-days under secret detention in 2011, Handcuffs (2012) is a subversive work depicting a symbol of oppression crafted in fine jade. This emphasizes the paradox of juxtaposing a law enforcement object with a material valued for its aesthetic and cultural value. Similar to how the ancient Chinese had crafted ceremonial tools—axes and daggers —in jade, Weiwei elevates the most important tool of his time—the smartphone—with iPhone (2012).
Installed throughout the entire space are wallpaper works. Finger (2015), wraps around the entirety of the main gallery space and uses Ai’s iconic middle finger motif. It is also the arm giving the gesture in the rectangular viewing room in Up Yours (2017) as well as those repeated in Ai’s widely recognized Study of Perspective (1995–present) series. Odyssey (2016) is a wallpaper elaborating upon the themes established in Blue-and-White Porcelain Plates and Vases with Refugee Motif as a Pillar. In an illustrative style that draws from ancient Greek and Egyptian wall carvings and paintings, Odyssey depicts the causes of flight, the arduous journeys undertaken, and the cold rejection faced by refugees. In the triangular viewing room, The Animal That Looks Like a Llama But is Really an Alpaca (2015) appears deceptively decorative upon first glance but reveals something more sinister upon closer inspection. There are repeated clusters of cameras that reference the constant surveillance characterizing modern life in many societies, the caonima (alpaca) and twitter bird which allude to free speech on the Chinese Internet, and lengths of iron rebar recalling the devastating 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.
Visible above the gallery is Ai’s Flag for Human Rights (2018). Ai has continued to document the continuing plight of the Rohingya people, with over one million having been forcibly displaced from Myanmar to Bangladesh. While documenting the ongoing displacement of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, Ai made footprints of the women and children, many of whom have gone their entire lives without shoes. The color scheme of the flag calls to mind the colors of the United Nations.
The sum of all of these works is a powerful survey of the breadth and depth of Ai’s work over the years—not only his empathy for the individual in a world bent on control, but the particularly potent manifestation of that empathy through wit, tenacity, hope, and the conviction that the individual is not subordinate to the whole, but integral to it. Cao / Humanity is an affirmation of freedom, expression, and individuality, and a fitting introduction of Ai’s work to Los Angeles.
The exhibition was conceived with our friend, Joshua Roth, and is dedicated to his memory.