Behind the scenes with Joanna Howells for #aiww

Posted on 3 May 2013.

Posted in: HT Blogs

Behind the scenes with Joanna Howells for #aiww

By Features Editor, Susie Benson

In the short film posted below, potter Joanna Howells can be seen making one of the 42 vases needed as props for the staging of Howard Brenton’s new play, #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, currently on our Main Stage until 18 May.

Howells works from a studio in Wales and as the film demonstrates, uses the traditional method of meticulously ‘hand-throwing’ onto a potter’s wheel. However she has never had a commission quite like this one. For those familiar with Ai Weiwei’s art, it might not be too hard to extrapolate which of his installations would require such a large number of replica props for its realisation to the stage.

Ai’s ceramic pieces constantly offer a variety of surprises, provoking an invigorating, iconoclastic critique of the traditional and classical canon. For instance, the series of representations of Han Dynasty vases, including his infamous Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994), riffs on seemingly unassailable icons, and has been variously interpreted as a take on the Cultural Revolution (1966-76); an interrogation of how the old makes way for new; and a questioning of the relevance of ‘classical’ art in modern China. In the play, Brenton depicts the artist rejecting this classicism as irrelevant to the chaos of modern life:

Ai Weiwei: I used to believe in the pure beauty of things. I was an architect, I longed for the ideal form. But then I woke up. I saw the death in classical art, the art the party likes. Its total inadequacy to describe the world we live in, to express what we feel.

One of the subtle ironies of this aspect of his art is that Ai Weiwei often commissions traditional craftsmen, skilled in classical media, to produce his iconoclastic pieces. For Sunflower Seeds (2010), 100 million unique porcelain seeds were crafted by hand in the town of Jingdezhen, for centuries a key centre in the manufacture of porcelain. The traditional artisanship required for producing Sunflower Seeds stands at counterpoise to the artwork’s ironic take on the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon of mass production, but the work also questions the relevance of classicism. Ai Weiwei termed his collaboration with the factory as finding ‘the possibilities of employing the old technique to a modern contemporary language’.

Dubbed ‘the Beijing Andy Warhol’, Ai Weiwei receives international recognition for his ground-breaking work and his efforts to effect social change in China. In 2012 ArtReview listed the 100 most powerful people in the art world and put him at number 3. Political activism and headlining work such as his collaboration with Herzog and de Meuron in the design of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium in Beijing have brought him worldwide attention, which later intensified when he denounced the Games as a ‘fake smile’, an allusion to the oppression he claimed lay beneath the public face of celebration.

In the play, Brenton encapsulates the scope of the artist’s ambitious work when he has Ai Weiwei declaim: ‘I want art that means …. everything!’ Resonating with political outrage and highlighting the power of the individual to effect change, his art, across media such as conceptual installation, sculpture, photography, architecture and ceramics can have a teasing aspect, a catch-me-if-you-can quality, emerging in, for instance, the name of his design studio ‘258 FAKE’, and the sequence of photographs of the artist ‘giving the finger’ to famous landmarks, Study of Perspective (1995-2003). This strand of playing with the absurd and the surreal is picked up in the play in sequences such as when the guards show him how to talk to them without moving his lips, like a ventriloquist, so that the conversation cannot be detected on the surveillance camera.

One of the artist’s most potent and controversial exhibitions was his retrospective, So Sorry, (Haus der Kunst, Munich 2009), an exploration of the modern tendency of governments and industry to apologise for tragedy arising from negligence or corruption. Key to this exhibition were a series of works commemorating the children who had died in the earthquake in the Sichuan province in May 2008. Ai Weiwei mounted a meticulous campaign online to research and collect every single name and all possible details about the children who had perished. The artist attributed the magnitude of the earthquake to shoddily built school buildings, which he described as having flimsy ‘tofu-skin’ as a result of construction-industry corruption. Amidst the collection of installations, was Remembering, a piece made up of thousands of brightly-coloured backpacks, fixed to the front façade of the Haus der Kunst gallery, spelling out in Chinese characters the words of a mother who lost her child in the earthquake: ‘She lived happily for seven years in this world’.

The power of the individual to effect change is a major theme in his work. Fairytale, staged at Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007 was a demonstration of his own power to move mass. Ai Weiwei recruited 1,001 volunteers in China through social media websites. Many of the participants had never travelled out of the country before. He brought them to Germany, orchestrating their clothes, luggage, dormitories, passports, and transport. It was recorded in a 150-minute film, and photographs were exhibited of the participants and props in situ. In the play, Ai Weiwei is depicted explaining Fairytale’s significance:

Ai Weiwei: The art is in what happened to those people’s spirits. Their personalities. It is their changing consciousness that interests me… That’s true creativity. In how people change.

Brenton’s play is a study of an artist and individual under extreme pressure, but it also reflects on the artist’s extraordinary work – and the extraordinary circumstances that inspire it.

#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is on at Hampstead Theatre until 18 May 2013.

To visit Joanna Howell’s website please click here

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