Chinese artist Ai Weiwei explores ideas of authenticity and truth in his current exhibition at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge
“A small show with big ideas,” is how Ai Weiwei describes his new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Thirteen works are on display alongside Chinese antiques, purchased by Weiwei in a local auction house. Titled The Liberty of Doubt, the exhibition tackles ideas of the real versus the fake, truth, value and the origin and dissemination of culture.
Pieces include Handcuffs (2011), carved from a single piece of jade and the new Marble Toilet Paper, made in 2020 as “a symbol of panic and distrust” brought on by the pandemic. A marble take-away box and iPhone and series of cosmetic packaging in jade point to our un-ecological consumer habits. These are displayed alongside ancient Chinese buddhas and porcelain dragon vases. Many of Weiwei’s purchases turned out to be fakes. “I consulted an expert in China. He even knew who had made them! But I admired the craftsmanship that had gone into them. Does it matter if they are 1000 or 30 years old?” To prove the point, Weiwei’s Han dynasty urn with Coca-Cola logo (2014) sits alongside a funerary jar from the same dynasty. (It’s one of the nine ‘real’ antiques in the show).
I admired the craftsmanship that had gone into them. Does it matter if they are 1000 or 30 years old?
The show occupies the entire gallery space Kettle’s Yard, the former home of art historian and collector the late Jim Ede. A flawless arrangement of objects and art, it is a paean to British modernism and features works by the likes of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson amassed between the 1950s and the 1970s. The site’s charms are not lost on Weiwei. “Its founder made art his life.”
There are three films in the show; Human Flow (2017) documents migration, Cockroach (2020) deals with protests in Hong Kong at the Chinese Communist Party’s moves to crush the island’s autonomy and Coronation explores how events unfolded in Wuhan during lockdown. It was filmed covertly by Weiwei’s contacts on the ground there. What’s next? “I’m documenting endangered animals all over the world. But I want to stop making too many more films; the world has so many problems, there are so many things I could document.”
Last year, Weiwei’s largest show to date opened at the Cordoaria Nacional in Lisbon and the artist moved to the small town of Montemor-o-Novo nearby. He has a farm with a pool and lawns dotted with cages of exotic birds, and is working on a monument commemorating former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev which will be installed in central Berlin. “I’m 65. How much time do I have left? My life has been too much struggle. It still is in that I have no sense of home. I feel lost.” Montemor-o-Novo is something of a refuge. “I need a quiet place and some detachment from reality so I can disconnect from the problems in the world. I want to go back to basics, back to working with my hands; making things.”
The Liberty of Doubt runs 12 February – 19 June.