In the Shade of Trees #1
Ai Weiwei — The Tree Recomposed
Since Antiquity, the tree has intrigued, fascinated, questioned and inspired all fields of creation, thoughts and emotions. Humans’ oldest companion, the tree remains, for our contemporaries, the most significant figure of the living, the one that links the earth to the sky, that perpetually regenerates, triumphant over time. For 20th and 21st centuries sculptors, it became a recurring part of their representation, object of questioning and identification: « When lying on the ground, I picture my feet as roots, my chest as a trunk, my arms and hands as branches and my senses as leaves, my movements are like those of the branches, » says artist Andy Goldsworthy.
Ai Weiwei — The tree recomposed
At the Frederik Meijer Garden and Sculpture Park (Michigan, USA), the Ai Weiwei exhibition (January-March 2017) is an opportunity to approach the representation of the tree in his work. Ai Weiwei (born in 1957) is the most significant personality of the independent Chinese art scene. Versatile (architect, photographer, sculptor, performer…), symbol of dissidence, his art is involved and often takes the shape of objects of everyday life or of communication means to reach a larger public. His work, among other things, revisits the concept of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymade” by representing original elements that he did not create himself, with a contemporary aesthetic and a political thought. The tree between past and present. In Literary Chinese, the tree is represented by the sinogram MU, which constitutes a radical from which are created a great number of important characters. MU means wood, one of the five elements of the cosmogony, which corresponds to renewal and rebirth. The tree, which is venerated in China, represents the perpetually morphing universe, the link par excellence between subterranean forces and celestial forces. The tree’s life cycle is proof that all things are connected, that it can stand alone as well as part of a whole forest. This traditional culture linked to taoism which permeates Ai Weiwei also shapes the way he approaches his work on trees.
Ai Weiwei’s adventure with trees started in the streets of Jingdezhen (Southern China) where tree trunks, branches and roots from nearby forests have been sold for decades. These complex shapes found in nature are used to decorate houses and are objects of contemplation perpetuating the tradition of using curiously shaped rocks to decorate educated men’s offices. For years, Ai Weiwei kept buying sections of old trees, storing them in his Beijing studio. A waiting time… to find a goal for this collection, to integrate it into his aesthetic vocabulary. Rethink basic elements of the past to think the present, a way of questioning the destruction and the preservation of cultural heritage. He does not hesitate, in his installations, to divert, redecorate, re-assemble, and even destroy ancestral objects.
From 2009 to 2010, Ai Weiwei created a series of twelve Trees from these old sections of dry trees. « It is like trying to imagine what the tree used to look like », explains Ai Weiwei. The different pieces are held together using the traditional method of tenons and mortise keys, to create the branches, adding bolts and screws to reinforce the elements of the structure. From a distance they look like real trees, but taking a closer look, it becomes visible that they are pieced together. The goal is not realism but an illusion of realism, which confuses the perception and the thoughts of the observer. It is as though the natural materials are being brought back to life, sort of an artistic resurrection. A new cycle begins.
By transforming their purpose and their original value, Ai Weiwei gives objects a new meaning and forces the spectator to confront them under a new light. The tree becomes an object of meditation on what constitutes a person, his/her relationship to origins, the different elements that participate to his/her being. To this « spiritual » aspect comes added a more social aspect. What constitutes a society, and how is it constituted? What is our individual role among the multitude? How do we come together and yet accept our differences? Some saw in Ai Weiwei’s tree a metaphor for a multi-ethnic China, joined by a desire to create one single nation. Each tree is unique. Although several pieces are similar and have the same title, their sizes vary and they can be displayed indoors as well as outdoors. Eight of them were displayed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London in 2015. A more monumental piece was purchased by the Tate Gallery: 22 feet high and 21 wide, it is composed of branches, trunks and roots of various species of trees such as camphor, cedar and gingko. The joins are left visible to highlight the different types of bark. Another one, 16 feet high and wide, with a natural ashen brown patina, was presented at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 2016, and another at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York in 2016.
From Tree to Iron Tree
Iron Tree marks a new stage in the development of Weiwei’s tree concept. It is composed of 99 molded pieces held together by oversized screws and bolts. Tree (2010) was the mold for Tree (2013) for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Great Britain. Placed outdoor, the materials oxidize and take on a distinctive rust color. Ai Weiwei thus evokes the idea of the cycle of seasons and the passage of time. By transitioning from the natural material to the iron mold, Ai Weiwei explores further the idea of art as an active principle of the possible metamorphosis of things. The idea of artifice is increased by the visibility of the human hand and the fact that a copy can be infinitely reproduced. The reflection triggered by the tree becomes wider. What is the relationship of humans with nature? What is our place amongst living things? Can they replace the living by copies and up to what limits?
By using an industrial material such as iron and the large bolts which hold the structure together, the social questioning becomes more political: can we or should we force different communities to live together? By copying, are all societies interchangeable? Does the artifice of the tree lead to the artificial aspect of our desire to deny the different ethnicities that constitute China, for example?
Trees and fragments
Several galleries have displayed fragments of trees, giving the impression of a forest of displaced objects: Max Hetzler gallery in Paris in 2015 as well as Lisson Gallery in New York in 2016, which dispayed seven sculptures: sectioned cast iron trunks over 13 feet long, and a series of iron roots. Fragments allow the representation of a society unrooted by industrialisation and modernisation, illustrating how an idea of progress can form to the detriment of humankind’s wellbeing.
The great art of Ai Weiwei is to produce a visual and poetic dialogue between the tree and the spectator, in which an infinite number of universal questions are being asked.
* Trees = arbres en français