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Chinese art and activism

Disturbing the peace

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STRONG STATEMENT: The exhibition takes forward the tradition of political and social appraisal;it has five documentaries by the artist, four of which catalogue the tyranny and cover-ups of the state. The still above from the documentary 'So Sorry' shows mourners at Sichuan

Astatic fly lingers on the homepage of Ai Weiwei's site. It draws attention to that other fly (those other flies) on another Asian's 'body' of work. But where Yoko Ono's insects made a point about male sexual predation, Weiwei's little bug could be a nod in the direction of state surveillance. The fly is persistent.

Weiwei doesn't explain the anthropod, but one can guess at his game. Earlier this month, the Chinese artist articulated a more pronounced critique of his government's vigil on political critics and activists like himself and scores of others in China, by creating weiweicam. com, a site that streamed his domestic activities live. Since the authorities were watching in any case..., the act, which some dubbed a 'tongue-in-cheek piece of performance art', was meant to memorialise Weiwei's arrest and incarceration for 81 days by the police, same time last year. Unsurprisingly, weiweicam went blank after two days of setting up.

If Ai has become the face of contemporary Chinese art and activism today, it is largely, by his own account, because of the internet. It allows him to amplify his voice, he said in an interview. Indeed, few outside the arts, knew him for anything other than Beijing's Olympic Nest, the stadium he said he designed because he loved design itself, not the mandarins who commissioned it. An ongoing exhibition in Mumbai will now give us a wider view of the man Art Review magazine ranked No 1 in their annual Power 100 list last year. This is the first time Ai's works are on display in India.

The exhibition is titled Arranging Chairs for Ai Weiwei, and it has been curated by Zasha Colah and Sumesh Sharma, co-founders of the Clark House Initiative, a curatorial collaborative concerned with ideas of freedom. It has, previously curated projects on human rights issues, pertaining to Dr Binayak Sen, and the disputed Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Arranging Chairs continues that tradition of political and social appraisal. At the heart of this exhibition are five documentaries by Ai Weiwei, four of which catalogue the tyranny and cover-ups of the state: So Sorry (2011), One Recluse (2010), Disturbing the Peace (2009) and Ordos 100 (2011). For Fairytale (2007), his contribution to the 12th edition of Documenta that took place in Kassel in 2007, Weiwei recorded the experiences of 1001 Chinese he had invited to Germany to live out their fairytale. It is the first four films, however, that show Ai as an artist who places himself squarely at the dark heart of the matter, defiantly elbowing the brittle status quo. In So Sorry, he is part of a citizen investigation that inquires into the deaths of 5, 000 school children who were buried inside poorly constructed school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichaun Earthquake. Disturbing the Peace features the artist's Kafkaesque attempts to uncover the whereabouts of one of his assistants who disappeared into police custody. Official heavy-handedness and subterfuge is exposed in One Recluse. And Ordos 100 is a documentation of the fruitless plans of 27 international architects who were selected to design 100 villas in the desert of Inner Mongolia.

Arranged around the films - not as adjuncts but extensions of the theme of state chauvinism - are works by Atul Dodiya, Justin Ponmany, Nikhil Raunak, Riyas Komu, Simon Liddiment, Tushar Joag, and posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. They all combine, through strategic alignment, to chasten the corruptions and criminality of state - alarmingly similar charges can be levied on both communist and democratic nations (read India). A revelation made via the tactical juxtaposition of propaganda posters from China's Cultural Revolution-era with prints of Atul Dodiya's watercolours on Gandhi, playing up both the contrasts and the coincidences of the political trajectories of both countries. The net of reproof is cast wider still with Riyas Komu's video montage of the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka, where 100, 000 are estimated to have perished since civil war broke out in 1983.

The intertextuality of the exhibition becomes increasingly evident as one progresses from room to room at the deliberately derelict quarters of Clark House Initiative, a space that was formerly (and to an extent still) used as a warehouse by the owners (Sharma's family). But the longer one lingers, the more apparent become the accidental connections as well, which makes this exhibition as much a product of circumstance as of design. Sunflowers sprout - from carvings in the furniture to miniature clay models left behind by Sharma's parents (in his public imagery sunflowers depicted Mao's loyalists;moreover, Sunflower Seeds was the title of one of Weiwei's most ambitious projects involving 100 million porcelain seeds at the Tate Modern). Exhibited posters of the Cultural Revolution are part of a set Sharma unearthed on holiday in Malaysia. A set of miniature porcelain animals (recovered again, from his parents' collection) makes convenient room for literary (Animal Farm) allusion. None of these, though, have quite the same sense of purpose as three Ming era hunting chairs, which too were part of the house's antique collection, and will now be Arranged for Ai Weiwei.


The exhibition is on till April 22. Video screenings from 11am-7 pm at Clark House, 8 Nathalal Parekh Marg (Old Wodehouse Road), Colaba, Mumbai

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