Ai Weiwei’s ‘Roots’ exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London may seem rather abstract upon first glance yet it provokes reflection on a range of issues from the ‘uprootedness’ of the refugee crisis to government corruption and civil disobedience. In the wake of the forest fires which have ravaged the Amazon rainforest in recent months, bringing international attention and renewed urgency to the question of the environment and deforestation, however, these pieces take on a greater significance.
The imposing sculptural works that give the exhibition its name were cast in iron from the roots of the Pequi Vinagreiro tree, native to the Atlantic Forest of Bahia in the Northeast of Brazil. Their enticing and twisting forms conjure up mystical creatures which take centre stage both within the gallery and in its outdoor spaces, where they sit at the mercy of the stormy skies of a British October. A puddle had formed in a crevice of one of the exterior pieces, reinforcing the idea of their belonging to a natural environment and thus emphasising their incongruity and uprooted status within the white walls of the gallery space; a subtle reflection of the experiences of refugees around the world who have been a focus of the artist’s work in past years. Weiwei himself has led a rather nomadic existence since leaving his native China in 2015 where he had previously been arrested for speaking out about government corruption, democracy and human rights.
Political meanings are teased out of the root sculptures via their association with the other works in the exhibition. Contrasting with these natural, three-dimensional forms, born of trees that can live a thousand years, are examples of Weiwei’s work with Lego. In the first room hangs a four metre tall reproduction of the front page of the Mueller Report on the investigation into Russian interference in thee 2016 US Presidential Election. The plastic bricks are a symbol of industrialisation and consumerism whose manufacturing process is at odds with the ancient methods of ‘lost wax’ moulding and iron casting used for the root sculptures. Another seemingly abstract Lego work depicts the route taken by a migrant rescue vessel refused port at Lampedusa. Each change of direction in the line represents rejection and despair.
The third group of works in the exhibition are a pair of delicate compositions in silk and bamboo, utilizing the craftsmanship of Chinese kite-makers from the Shandong province. Hung from the ceiling, their lightness provides a balancing counterpoint to the weight of the iron roots in the centre of the room. All Fingers Must Point Down (2015) references the artist‘s earlier Study of Persepective series, whose middle fingers held up to monuments and institutions of national importance are downturned here, cascading down among disjointed creatures from ancient Chinese mythology. Weiwei’s often talks about the fragility of democracy and freedom of speech, which are not to be taken for granted. He feels a responsibility to speak out for those who have no voice.
It is no coincidence that the artist has chosen to source his materials from Brazil and to work with Brazilian curator Marcello Dantas and local craftsmen in putting together this exhibition which was initially shown at the iconic, Oscar Niemeyer designed OCA Pavillion in São Paulo. Brazil’s fate and that of the world is intimately linked to the health of the Amazon rainforest which President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies put in danger. During his election campaign he declared that he wouldn’t leave Brazil’s indigenous peoples a single square centimetre of their demarcated reserves. The crisis in the Amazon is not only an environmental one but one of human displacement. This week the president has been visiting Xi Jinping on a charm offensive in China, Brazil’s biggest trade partner. He invited Chinese investors to participate in mega-auctions of Brazilian petroleum signed an agreement on a saintary protocol for thermo-processed meat in the hopes of increasing meat exports to China, bearing in mind that the meat industry is one of the main factors in deforestation. The two presidents found they had many points of agreement, with Bolsonaro declaring support for China’s “territorial integrity“ in relation to Taiwan and showing thanks for Chinese support over what Bolsonaro saw as an international threat to Brazilian sovereignty, sparking tension with French President Macron, over the reaction to the forest fires.
With censorship in Brazil an increasingly real threat and Bolsonaro’s antagonistic relationship with the free press, it is not hard to see a link suggested in Weiwei’s work between the Chinese and the Brazilian realities. His thought provoking exhibition stresses the globality of issuses of democracy and displacement. Our roots connect us all to the same earth.