The White House, 2015, historical wooden structure of the Qing Dynasty, painted in white

Conceptual wood imagined by Ai Weiwei

Artworks and play with beautiful wood by Chinese artist, architect and activist Ai Weiwei exhibited in Helsinki at the renovated HAM Museum

Ai Weiwei’s freedom to travel was reinstated in the autumn and he was able to attend openings of his big European shows, first in London at the Royal Academy and then in Helsinki at the renovated HAM Museum. Two spaces with very different cultural connotations, something that Ai’s work also plays with. At the moment Ai is travelling around Italy and Greece, helping refugees as well as researching for a forthcoming exhibition in Florence on the meaning of Renaissance architecture.

For architect Miia-Liina Tommila (partner in Kaleidoscope studio and also contributor to Grand Tour) the Helsinki show was the first occasion to experience Ai Weiwei’s art at first hand. As someone with an architect’s sensibility to form as well as a Finn’s connection to wood it was great to hear her view of the exhibition. “I loved the changes of scale, ranging from wooden handcuffs (Handcuffs 2012) to the size of a barn (White House 2015). This created wonderful dynamics in the rather small exhibition, mental waves of impressions and thoughts. Also the continuously apparent attention to detail in the work is fascinating.”

Where the London show was a survey of the many ways in which Ai’s art addresses his relationship and the complex ideology of China, in Helsinki it’s all about wood. Curators at HAM were not immediately convinced about Ai Weiwei’s suggestion for wood as the central theme, which could seem obvious in the Finnish context, where the forest has always been a key element of the national identity. Not only economically, but also ideologically representing purity and a connection to nature.

The show talks about the appreciation and love of things well made. Craft plays a major role in all the pieces on display

As Miia-Liina Tommila points out the theme works on several levels: “The show talks about the appreciation and love of things well made. Craft plays a major role in all of the pieces on display. The decision to choose working with one material is successful: it makes the exhibition into an entity, where the varied themes, spanning from politics to heritage and architecture, are easier to approach and grasp – as in through wooden lenses.” 

Divine Proportio, 2012, a wooden sculpture emulating the form of a football with pentagonal and hexagonal faces. The piece now belongs to the HAM permanent collection
Divine Proportio, 2012, a wooden sculpture emulating the form of a football with pentagonal and hexagonal faces. This simple, elaborately constructed piece now belongs to the HAM permanent collection

Ai challenges our perceptions: the possibilities and poetic qualities of wood. I asked Tommila what kind of symbolic values are associated to wood? “Values related to the use of wood are also related to the cycle of life. Wood bears visible marks of its age and carries the potential to become earth again. In the culture of building, these facts translate into respect for nature and a will to be in harmony with your surroundings. The ageing of wood, due to weather or the human touch, is another side of the same idea.”

The show starts with Ai’s snapshots of his middle finger against some key Helsinki icons, taken during a 2001 trip with his wife Lu Qing, and ends with the famous video clip with Ai dancing Gangnam-style. When I visited the show a Finnish teenager dressed in rapper style couldn’t get his head around why Ai is showing his middle finger, despite his mum trying to explain the critical context. But perhaps in the end Ai’s sense of humour might have sunk in, who knows.

Ordos 100, a wooden architecture model of the villas designed by international architects invited by Ai Weiwei
Ordos 100, a wooden model of the villas designed by emerging international architects for Ai Weiwei’s project in a remote region of China

Ai’s big un-completed architectural ambition is showcased in Helsinki through a large wooden model of the villas commissioned for Ordos, a remote Mongolian village, which remains unbuilt. A video recounts the scale of Ai’s architectural dream, but the purpose of the grand project remains slightly obscure, as Tommila points out: “The strongest contrast in the exhibition rises from seeing Ordos 100 together with all the other works. For me as architect, this work shows itself as a kind of  conceptual insanity; the sad reality emphasized besides the mastery of other works on display. Here urban planning seems to be just a playground of concepts and crafted models, which is the only reasonable conclusion to be made of the plan area.” However it certainly demonstrates how Ai’s vision has always challenged the edges of reason. 

Tree, 2010, sculptural installation made of dead tree trunks collected from a mountainous region of South China
Tree, 2010, sculpture made of dead tree trunks collected from a mountainous region of South China

“I was most touched by the work “Tree” (2010), built from pieces of dead wood found in China. For me, this sculpture was the image of damage which cannot be repaired. A symbol of broken time and society, an attempt to give it new form, new life, new cohesion, new meaning, the roots dismantled, the heritage lost. The tree is dead and it remains so, its meaning altered for ever.” 

A group of those haunting trees were also in London, assembled on the courtyard of the Burlington House, surrounded by the Palladian architecture. Overall the effect of the show is very different in Helsinki where the space given to HAM is relatively small. Taken into account the size of the 1930s building, designed originally as indoor tennis courts, the cinema complex seems to have ruled over the museum space.

Miia-Liina found the renovated HAM peaceful and balanced. “The staircase is the only new element, a luxurious accent to the otherwise simple complex. I miss seeing more of the domed ceiling though, which now seems to vanish into the background. I wish it could be made into more of a special feature.” M.W

Ai Weiwei, HAM Helsinki Art Museum, 25.9. 2015 – 28.2. 2016 

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