The Haus der Kunst, completed by Hitler in 1937 to house the “Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung”—a virtuous counterpoint to the “Degenerate Art” exhibition which opened one day later—is one of those venues that demands the ante of a site-specific response before the business of showing other work can proceed. As such, it was an ideal venue for Ai Weiwei’s largest retrospective to date, in that it added an element of an alien context to an oeuvre that is too easily explained away as containing the multitudes of contemporary China. Ai seems to have understood rather intuitively the challenge and opportunity presented by such a weighty site, and chose in response to center his show around a single work that served to encapsulate, drastically and radically, everything he has been doing and saying for the last decade. That work was a carpet, 35 by 10 meters, woven at the Beijing No. 1 Carpet Factory, and rendering every imperfection, every tone, of the Haus’s travertine floor with stunning verisimilitude. Based on a entomologically precise grid of digital photographs of each tile made possible by copious amounts of mobile (Chinese) labor, and then realized by pushing a group of state-system craftspeople just beyond the fringes of their comfort zone, Soft Ground’s production recapitulates Ai’s working method (an inner circle of lieutenants surrounded by an outer circle of contractors) par excellence. Formally speaking, it sat exactly upon the squares it intended to cover, not a millimeter out of place. To many viewers, in fact, the carpet was at first invisible, which was exactly the point.
In contrast to Urs Fischer’s recent trompe l’oeil intervention at the New Museum, this carpet seemed more purposeful than playful, suggesting how reality can be twisted and obscured by power in ways the viewer (or the citizen-subject) must simply live with. At first glance, one might be tempted to think its thrust lies in the mimesis, in how the comrades at the carpet factory had gotten every detail down pat. But the more subversive reading is perhaps that having gotten it, or rather, after we are led to believe that they have gotten it, we are left with only their version of the reality, now hidden just below a soft fuzzy surface. Of course it’s a short leap from here to the bigger historical and political questions for which Ai is better known, particularly in the wake of his highly mediated Munich head surgery. That the carpet became the surface for a forest of scholar’s stone driftwood (Rooted Upon, 2009) onto which viewers were enticed, but forbidden, to walk, and that the surrounding walls were papered in a mosaic of the faces of the thousand individuals Ai brought to Kassel during his last major German stunt two years earlier (Fairytale (1001 Chinese Visitors), 2007/09), only adds to the suggestion that Soft Ground is really about the possibilities allotted the individual in contemporary mass society.
Seen through the prism of this central nave, the fundamental push behind most of Ai’s other works comes into fresh relief. The paint-dipped pots, the cut tables are suddenly also pieces about forced obfuscation. (To quote his own words on the dipped urns: “You cover something so that it is no longer visible but is still there underneath, and what appears on the surface is not supposed to be there but is there.” ) The perfectly finished ebony cube, the pressed mass of tea, these are about marshalling the knowledge of a material tradition into new and perhaps useless forms. The grotesque grandeur of his chandeliers, here represented by Cube Light (2008), seems even more pronounced. And the archival impulse to catalogue the floor tiles, which also lies behind extended photographic projects like those to document the construction of the National Stadium and the destruction wrought by the Wenchuan Earthquake, not to mention earlier attempts to catalogue every section of Chang’an Boulevard or the Third Ring Road—is finally allowed the prominence it has always had for Ai. In the inner galleries, Chris Dercon and the Haus der Kunst curatorial team did an impressive job of imparting a complex practice with a sense of unity that still did not cheapen from its multivalence.
But what about that façade, where Ai used seven thousand children’s backpacks to spell out the sentence “She lived happily on this earth for seven years,” spoken by one of the earthquake victims’ bereaved mothers? Ten meters high and one hundred meters long, the oversized utterance was paired unwittingly with a giant exhibition billboard featuring the artist’s strangely shorn visage on a red background as if to posit an equivalence, or perhaps simply to assert authorship, over the sentence and the activist stance it embodied. This is the “political Ai” of recent years, one whom he claims has always existed, but remained hidden behind eminently tasteful assemblages of clay and wood. But is spelling a sentence out of cheap (new) backpacks, even on such a massive and public scale, really the sort of gesture Ai wants to be known for? Does such direct intervention into a social conversation allow for new possibilities, or simply verify a position that has been operative, in the background, all along? Unlike some critics, I am less inclined to question the sincerity of Ai’s positions than the efficacy of this particular strategy of letting it all hang out. In contrast with the works on view inside, the façade could only seem an instance where art and politics seemed uncomfortably mixed, to the benefit of neither.
A better Ai may be found in his recreation of his fallen Documenta XII sculpture Template (2007/09), a painstaking rendition of collapsed monumentality implanted at the entrance to the exhibition as a sort of rebuke to those who might suspect Ai of offering any bold way forward. (With the help of architects and engineers, he reconstructed the temple made of temple doors exactly as it was blown over by a windstorm shortly after Documenta opened.) Or, for that matter, on the Haus’s rear façade, where twenty-two bamboo poles bookended by Yuan-style guan jars (Bamboo and Porcelain, 2009) struggle to press open the space between each pair of columns, covering a distance identical to the backpack-wall in a manner more poignant than posturing. In these more focused, and dare it be said, more aesthetic interventions, Ai combines an urge that can only be called moral with a staunch refusal to give so much away.