Chinese artist, activist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei collapsed in a chair at Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge. He had a trimmed goatee and was dressed all in black, the heels of his shoes flattened to be worn like house slippers. He yawned and scratched his calf. “It’s so boring,” he said. He got up and began to wander the empty galleries, inspecting a pair of ancient-looking Chinese sculptures in glass cases. The objects were part of his new exhibition, “The Freedom of Doubt”. Ai had overseen the installation from his studio in Portugal, and this was the first day he had seen the show in person.
“Are you trying to tell which ones are real, Weiwei?” Greg Hilty, curatorial director at the Lisson Gallery, which represents the artist, asked.
The show is based on a particular vanity. In 2020, one of Ai’s friends tipped him off to a sale of Chinese antiques at Cheffins, an auction house in Cambridge. Ai had recently moved to the city with his partner and son, after four years of exile in Berlin. He was on the road and looked at the auction house’s website. “Several pieces looked lovely,” he said, and the prices were “unbelievably low.” To distract himself, he places a few bids, and ends up winning about fifty objects.
One of Ai’s most famous works is a photographic triptych of him dropping a Han dynasty urn; the piece is reproduced at Kettle’s Yard in grayscale Legos. He is also an obsessive collector who has spent years scouring Beijing’s antique markets. When the items he purchased from Cheffins arrived, he found that they had been “poorly wrapped” in newspaper. As he began to examine them, “I realize that some of them are not real,” he said. “On iPhone, you don’t see the patina.” He consulted an antiquities expert in China, who confirmed his suspicions. The expert then said, “I know who made some.” Ai pointed out that there is a long tradition of copying and one-upmanship among Chinese artists that contradicts Western concepts of authenticity.
In this case, Ai had just been invited to do an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard. The only requirement, according to gallery director Andrew Nairne, was that the works use “local materials”. Ai had the mischievous idea of mixing his fake (and real) auction acquisitions with pieces of his household furniture, ceramics and stone reproductions of everyday objects: he had a CCTV camera and a container to take marble, as well as a pair of handcuffs and an old iPhone were carved from pieces of jade. In the exhibition, some of the marble and jade works are displayed in an antique mahogany casket purchased from the British Museum. It once housed ancient Chinese earthenware.
At the opening of the show, a critic from Guardian wondered if the artist was just “calling her, on a jade iPhone.” Ai looked troubled. “I always struggle with whether or not I’m a good artist,” he said.
He perked up when a group of Cambridge students arrived for a private visit. Two young men admired a plate showing a brain scan of Ai after he was beaten by police in 2009.
“I had a few while I was at the doctor, for these language acquisition aptitude tests,” said one of the students. “They would show you your brain. I thought it was great at the time. Since then, I have realized that doing this several times. . .” He died.
In another corner, a trio were examining large blue and white porcelain plates depicting contemporary scenes of political conflict, take-offs on the Blue Willow motif. In the center of a plaque, masked protesters are surrounded by swirling clouds of tear gas.
An upstairs gallery had been turned into a screening room and was showing the artist’s 2020 documentary on the Hong Kong protests, “Cockroach.” Muffled screams, cheers, gunshots and police sirens echoed through the building. “If we give up like this, we will not be able to pay our debts to the people who left, who were injured, arrested. . . or who have to live in exile,” says a young protester in the film.
In the gallery, a student mentioned that she was from Hong Kong and had been part of the protests. “These kind of pictures bring me back,” she said.
“Was that scary enough?” asked a boy.
The girl stopped. “It was less scary than the news reports,” she said, her tone turning nostalgic. “That was the time.” ♦