Conceptual art exhibitions & performance in London

Posted on July 12, 2014 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

ai weiwei's Forever

Ai Weiwei's 'Forever'


Last month, I visited Lisson Gallery to see the new exhibitions of two renowed contemporary conceptual artists, Ai Weiwei (until 19th July) and Richard Long (just ended).

I have quite mixed feelings towards Ai Weiwei because I often think that his political activism, colourful character and public relations seem to outshine his art work. Not that the artist lacks substance, but without his arrest and continuous controversy, I wonder if he would still be considered as one of the world's 'greatest' contemporary artists? As a human being, I admire his courage and persistence, but as a viewer, I find some of his work cold, calculating and manipulative.

At the exhibition, his installations of stainless steel bicycles stacked and layered together are part of an ongoing series, 'Forever', named after the well-known Chinese bicycle brand that has been mass-produced in Shanghai since 1940. The work mocks the assembling and copying that occur in China and the fact that the symbolic cult design is steadily dying out while being replaced by smog-emitting cars. I found the installations aesthetically interesting to view but that is about it.

Elsewhere in the gallery, there are a variety of hand-carved objects like two marble recreations of his father's armchair, sets of cosmetics bottles made from jade, marble gas mask, coat hangers, handcuffs and Beijing taxi window handles that are made of glass.


ai weiwei ai weiweiai weiwei's Foreverai weiwei's Foreverai weiweiai weiwei ai weiwei's a study of perspective


My favourite items at the exhibition are the glass taxi window handles because of the story behind them. In his documentary shown downstairs, he spoke to different Beijing taxi drivers who complained about the government insisting that they removed the window handles for fear that political activists and protesters would transmit their leaflets through car windows near Tiananmen Square. Unbelievable!

The exhibition also displays his well-known 'A study of perspective' photo series, where the artist’s middle finger is positioned in front of some of the world’s most notable man-made landmarks around the world. Whether I or others like his art work or not, it's besides the point because the artist has succeeded in making his statements clear to the world through his art work. In this day and age, talents would not get you very far unless you are able to create hype around you and what you do. And Ai Weiwei is a master of this.


richard long's four waysrichard longrichard long's four waysIMG_8414

Main & bottom middle: Richard Long's 'Four ways'; Bottom left: Richard Long's 'With no direction known like a rolling stone'; Bottom right: a piece of 'street art' outside of the gallery


In the other gallery on the same street, British conceptual artist Richard Long's work couldn't have been more different. His work focuses on the existential notion of the solitary exploration of nature, inspired by walks in rural England and trips from around the world. As someone who became keen on hiking/walking in the recent years, I appreciate Long's respect for nature, which is evident in his art work. He usually works in the landscape but sometimes uses natural materials in the gallery. He often arranges them in basic archetypal shapes and forms, which appears to be simple yet surprisingly powerful in a confined indoor space.

The most eye-catching work at the exhibition was 'Four ways' installed in the front room, composed of 2 diagonal lines of delabole slate from Cornwall. In other rooms, there were texts/graphics documenting his walks, wall pieces made from clay and mud, as well as a room full of photographs taken while he was in Antactica and the Swiss Alps.


serpentine gallery serpentine gallery

Marina Abramović's 512 hours at Serpentine Gallery


Although Lisson Gallery also supports performance artist, Marina Abramović, her new performance in London, 512 hours is being shown elsewhere at the Serpentine Gallery (until August 25).

I have previously written about Marina Abramović (twice actually on her documentary and institute) and I thought her work, 'The artist is present' at MOMA in New York was raw, ground-breaking and powerful. Hence, I was curious about her new performance despite the mixed reviews.

Normally, I hate queues and would avoid them as much as possible. However, this time I was prepared to queue for a while if necessary, so I picked to do this on a sunny and warm afternoon during the week. The queue was shorter than I expected and I waited about 30 mins before I was let in.

After leaving all our possessions in the lockers outside (hence no photography), visitors would enter a large white room full of people sitting at rows of wooden desks counting rice or seeds of some sort. In the other rooms, there were people lying down on beds, sitting on chairs facing the wall and people walking 'mindfully' or standing on a plinth in the middle of the room. While there were many assistants (all dressed in black) giving directions to the visitors, Marina was nowhere to be seen.

After spending about 15 minutes wandering in and out of the rooms observing others, I finally saw the artist emerged. She spoke to a few visitors and then held a young girl's hand and led her up to a plinth. By this time, I was rather bored and decided to leave after spending about 20 mins inside.

'An elaborate exercise in mindfulness' was how art critic Laura Cumming summed it up in her article for The Observer and I couldn't agree more. In April, I spent 168 hours doing 'nothing' silently with a group of strangers at a Zen retreat in rural Devon, yet nobody saw it as art nor did they think my actions were radical. I understand that Marina is trying to spread mindfulness to the public through her work, but claiming this to be radical is quite ludicrous. I think that most people would have preconceived ideas or judgements before their visits, some may want to be emotionally charged while others may be cynical and dismissive. Hence, it is no surprise that some may be overwhelmed by their experiences while others experienced the opposite. Even though I had no expectations before I went, I left feeling disappointed, so perhaps I was secretly hoping to gain something out of it.

The so-called performance perhaps reinstated the artist's psychological power and control on her visitors. I found it self-indulgent and it would be hard for the visitors (myself included) not to be self-conscious because they are aware that they are being watched by others including the cult icon herself. How much of the emotions generated in this space is genuine and how much of it is being manipulated? I doubt the visitors can answer it themselves.

When I got home, I couldn't help but wonder the power of fame on people, especially on artistic people who struggled to get recognition for a long time. When fame arrives one day, it also has the ability to remove certain qualities that these artistic people once possessed. Marina, Zaha Hadid (whom I used to admire a lot) and Wong Kar Wai to name a few. I think that artistic people are most creative and true to themselves when there are creative and financial constraints. The reward of fame or celebrity status may create total freedom for them, but this along with narcissism may also be their worst enemies.


This post was posted in London, Exhibitions, Art, Theatre & performance art, Chinese art and was tagged with London, art and design exhibitions, Chinese art, Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, Richard Long, performance art