Ai Weiwei and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park coup

Susie Stubbs
Fairytale–1001 Chairs, 2007. Qing dynasty wooden chairs (1644-1911).

YSP has done something no other British gallery has managed in four years – brought work by the dissident Chinese artist to the UK for a solo exhibition.

I’ve never met Ai Weiwei. The artist best known in this country for filling Tate Modern’s epic Turbine Hall with millions of ceramic sunflower seeds may be a household name, but he’s currently stuck in China – barred from travel by a government whose ire at his various political protests has extended to beatings, imprisonment and even the demolition of his studio.

But though I have never met the eponymous Ai, Yorkshire Sculpture Park has done something no other British gallery has done in four years: brought new work by the Chinese artist to the UK for a solo show. More than that – YSP’s newly opened exhibition has been installed in and around the renovated 18th-century chapel in its grounds, which is as close as you or I are likely to get to an artist whose work is prolific, whose reach is international, yet whose passport if currently confiscated, the property of a government desperate to stifle one man’s dissenting voice.

They speak of individual & collective freedoms, & the humanity that can bind & break us apart

That new work is a thing of subtle beauty. Called Lantern, the marble sculpture alludes to the CCTV cameras that surround Ai’s home and monitor his every move. The marble itself is the same stuff used to build the Forbidden City – and Chairman Mao’s tomb. Other works include the exquisite Iron Tree, a towering sculpture pieced together from dozens of different parts that sits in the chapel’s courtyard, and a collection of 45 mismatched antique chairs lined up in neat rows inside the chapel.

These chairs continue a project Ai began at Documenta in 2007, where he brought 1,001 Chinese volunteers to the art fair to live there for its duration – each chair represented a person, with each a palpable demonstration of how difficult it is for Chinese nationals to travel abroad (for this project at YSP, Ai had to be content to work with photos and plans of the chapel rather than see the space first hand). Readings of the work of Ai’s father, the poet Ai Qing, also permeate the space. Together, the works speak quietly about individual and collective freedoms, and the humanity that can both bind and break us apart.

The Bretton Estate chapel, meanwhile, acts as a Georgian foil to the works. The subject of a £500,000 restoration project, the 200 year-old building belonged to the Bretton estate whose bulk makes up the 500-acre sculpture park. Deconsecrated in the 1970s, it was at risk of serious decay until YSP raised the funds to bring it back into fully-functioning life. And what a way to mark its reopening, with this significant exhibition by a man I will likely never meet but whose works in Yorkshire this summer are a direction communication between a dissident artist and the world at large.

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