Ai Weiwei responds to the refugee crisis with enduring symbols of his cultural heritage.

The Upper Belvedere Palace in Vienna is arguably one of the city’s most gracious Baroque structures. It was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663 - 1736) to celebrate his defeat of the Turks in 1683. Designed by the famous architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt in the early 1700s, it sits on the crown of a hill, and was the centre of orgies (as rumour has it) and festivities. In summer months, Prince Eugene resided in the Lower Belvedere Palace at the base of the hill, and in winter he moved to the Winter Palace, now in Vienna’s first district. 

AI WEIWEI translocation – transformation is an exhibition by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei that takes place in three locations in this elegant city — the pond and interior of the Upper Belvedere, and in the 21-er Haus, or Museum of the 21st Century.  

F Lotus floats on the picturesque shallow pond in the extensive landscaped gardens of the UNESCO-listed palace. One thousand and five life jackets float like lotus plants, fixed to two hundred and one rings, forming the letter F. The life jackets are a poignant reminder of the current refugee crisis in Europe. Austria is currently home to most refugees per capita of any country in Europe. Alongside Sweden and Germany, it is one of the three countries of the twenty-eight in the European Union to take on the responsibility of helping refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. Many have arrived via Greece, Italy or Africa, enduring hazardous journeys resulting in the drowning of hundreds in the Mediterranean. 

The pond of the Upper Belvedere is surrounded by bronze figureheads on twisted poles. The Zodiac Heads represent the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in a playful reconsideration of European heraldry, and are akin to peremptory war trophies of the decapitated and impaled vanquished. The bear, the monkey, the lion, the rooster and others stand as benign guards beside the watery memento mori of the lost souls’ flotsam.  

“They are delicate and light and lift the spirits.”

Inside the Upper Belvedere, Ai Weiwei has devised a series of mythical kites made of thin white silk stretched over bamboo frames. The creatures fly (or swim) in the air over the Representative Staircase in the place. “They are an aesthetic joy, ” says Viennese resident and fine art aficionado Sonja Knoll on a recent visit. “They are delicate and light and lift the spirits. The dragons are my personal favourites for their mythical importance as well as for their exquisite craftwork. [The creatures are from China’s oldest mythological text, the Shanhaijing, “The Classic of Mountains and Seas”]. Coincidentally, the German word drache means both dragon and kite.”

“cracked logs and entire tree trunks, have a special beauty with their raw, twisted, distorted form…”

In the 21-er Haus, Ai Weiwei has reconstructed the Ancestral Hall of the Wang Family. The elements of Wang Family Ancestral Hall (2015) date to the Ming Dynasty and were purchased by the artist long after the tea-trading family was expelled during China’s Great Revolution. The structure is composed of thirteen thousand pieces of timber. “Looking into the roof-construction from the museum’s first floor one can admire the mastery of the old architecture,” says Sonja. “The columns and beams, cracked logs and entire tree trunks, have a special beauty with their raw, twisted, distorted form, making a fine contrast to the exquisitely carved decoration under the roof of vivid green, like Matcha tea. 

Nearby, Spouts (2015) is a constructed carpet of old tea pot spouts. Sonja’s perspective is vivid: “From the distance, the swathe of beige looks elegant, soft and minimal. The closer I came the more the pot pieces resembled human bones, with all their associations with flight and deceased refugees again. From close up there was an undercurrent of danger: the broken spout edges can easily hurt / cut human flesh.”

In Teahouse (2005), compacted Pu-Erh tea leaves rise as gabled house forms from a lawn of loose tea leaves, a sensory rendition of the Chinese tea-tradition. Their sweet and fresh fragrance fills the hall.

The 21er Haus is housed in the pavilion designed by Karl Schwanzer as the Austrian Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World Expo. Originally intended to be destroyed, it was then relocated to Vienna and adapted to a contemporary art museum by architect Adolf Krischanitz. This relocation and transformation makes it a fitting architectural vessel for Ai Weiwei’s contemplations.

21er Haus photo: Gerald Zugmann

all other photos: Sonja Knoll

AI WEIWEI translocation – transformation runs until 20th November 2016