Ai Weiwei’s spider’s web for Liverpool

LONDON. Tate Liverpool has commissioned the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to make an ambitious installation for the Liverpool Biennial, opening next September. This will span the width of the historic former dockyard where the gallery is located. The engineering firm Arup is currently conducting a feasibility study for Web of Light which will be concluded by the end of this month.

The work will consist of illuminated crystalline strands suspended from steel cables which stretch across the Albert Dock. A spider made out of crystals will hang in the corner nearest to Tate; the entire installation will weigh over eight tonnes. The gallery will need to raise around £400,000 to realise the work.

Ai Weiwei has already made an installation for Tate Liverpool included in the exhibition “The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China” earlier this year. Fountain of Light was a two-tonne eight-metre-high steel structure illuminated like a chandelier which floated in the middle of the dock.

Simon Groom, formerly Head of Exhibitions at Tate Liverpool, now director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, says: “Ai Weiwei very much liked the architecture of the Albert Dock, as well as the sense of energy in Liverpool which he compared to Beijing. Given the success and popular appeal of the first work, it seemed only natural to want to pursue something of an even more ambitious and spectacular nature, and Web of Light promises to be the ‘must-see’ landmark public work for Capital of Culture. The work is incredibly ambitious, and of a scale to dwarf every other major public commission—but this is what happens when the ambitions of a country like China collide with those of a city like Liverpool!”

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Zarina Bhimji

Born in 1963 in Mbarara, Uganda, Zarina Bhimji now lives and works in London and Berlin.

Immediately after receiving a B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of London in 1987, she began exhibiting her work in group exhibitions. Following post-graduate work she became an Artist in Residence at Darwin College in Cambridge. In 1996, her work was part of the “In/Sight” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

One of her latest works, “Out of Blue,” was commissioned and produced by Documenta 11, held in Cologne, Germany in 2002.Bhimji returned to Uganda to film the architecture, airports, and graveyards as well as the military barracks, police cells, and prisons of Amin’s reign of terror. In her work Zarina Bhimji explores the politics and poetics of power and history through images rich in colour, texture and content.

Here we will review her new movie

Entebbe Airport (still from Out of Blue) 2001

Zarina Bhimji’s new film on show at Tate Britain draws on her childhood memories. The writer and broadcaster Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who shares the artist’s Ugandan Asian origins, offers her own vivid reaction to their common experience

Zarina Bhimji was once invited to show her startlingly challenging art at a deeply conservative Islamic centre, and then threatened to withdraw unless she was allowed to include commentaries on the naked human body, male and female. This educative confrontation took place at the beautiful building opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum where the Ismaili mosque is used by worshippers each evening and dawn.

The Earth was coming off its hinges, 1999-2001

Bhimji won and the centre gained something immensely important, letting innovation and rebellion into the hallowed halls, with their ancestral geometric patterns and fountains paying eternal homage to the past. The walls did not crumble; faith was not polluted, and profoundly held values were nourished by being engaged with in the most audacious way.

Some Muslim communities are waking up to the fact that art, writing, science, new ideas and intellectual debate once used to define Islam in the world. When Europe was locked in superstition and a rejection of threatening ideas, Muslim scholars were devouring the work of Greek philosophers and creating vital, inquisitive cultures. In the past 50 years a dark age seems to have descended on the Islamic world, making too many Muslims disenchanted, suspicious and hopelessly nostalgic. Optimists detect a new renaissance slowly unfolding and Bhimji (who may or may not be a practising Muslim) is, in my view, partly located in this re-awakening.

She is bold, daring, demanding. If she turns to Islamic history, it is with the vengeance of an activist. In the 1990s her Cleaning the Garden project featured the gardens and courtyards of the Alhambra, but this was to repudiate present-day European cultural storytellers who are hell-bent on excising the role and long presence of Islam from their land, and to remind post-Rushdie Muslims of what they once were.

Work in Progress, 2001

Yet this dissident and sharp observer has given us, in Out of Blue, a film which is deteminedly conservative and questionably partial. This is one of Bhimji’s most personal expressions to date. As one of those forcibly dispossessed by Idi Amin exactly 30 years ago, she explores the unresolved pain and unanswered questions which still haunt many Ugandan Asians. Their lives before the expulsions hover restlessly, as they try to make sense of explanations which are only half true. This latest offering is a moving display of these half truths; effective yes, but not convincing in the end for those of us who know what happened and why.

Forced exile is a terrible thing. It is also one of the most powerful liberators of creativity. The dislocation sets free a range of dramas and stories without predictable ends – only questions, questions, and more questions. It lightens the burden of obligation to nationality and homeland while instilling a futile longing for both. It bestows on the lucky victims a profundity which you cannot learn anywhere. This intensity pulls you into Out of Blue, as the sounds circulate and tangle and as images emerge from the high, confident, affluent walls of Tate Britain. (Many of the shots are of walls of pain – of old decayed houses, of prisons with dried blood stuck in rivulets under the high bars, of the near-derelict airport at Entebbe.) Viewers are compelled to enter the inner rooms, the artist’s unquiet sensibility and the impossibility of closure.

Out of Blue is a short tale of an imploded paradise (the conventional view taken by Asians of Uganda), and begins with the landscape which is still fresh for those of us who were driven from it. As the camera strokes its way softly across the beauty, three decades of distance vanish. In my autobiography No Place Like Home (incidentally also the title of a 1997 exhibition of Bhimji’s in Minneapolis), I wrote: ‘Uganda, with its moist and raging green everywhere, prodigious, boisterous flowers, trees and grasses and beautiful red earth. Utterly untamed.’ Bhimji’s initial, loving images capture this absolutely but inject a fragility which wasn’t there before, before the bloody history which saw a million black Ugandans slaughtered by its first two presidents between them.

THE LANDSCAPE IS STILL FRESH FOR THOSE DRIVEN FROM IT. AS THE CAMERA STROKES ITS WAY SOFTLY ACROSS THE BEAUTY, THREE DECADES OF DISTANCE VANISH

Then comes a small fire in the grass. It gets larger; a cacophony of sounds invades the birdsong; ruthless Amin and his cronies threatening and ordering, sighs of bewilderment and sung recitals of pleading prayers from Asian victims and the greater, more gruesome pain of others going through a greater horror, those who were left behind to die or be tortured. The soundtrack kicks you in the stomach, raising panic without a name. And although it is a clich, it works – the sun gets blighted by the thick black smoke which rises from the burnt terrain and charred hopes.

Bhimji is drawn to decayed buildings which speak eloquently. There are shots of rotting mansions once occupied by rich Asians (many of whom didn’t care enough that black Ugandans were left at the bottom of the economic pile, and did not address their own racisms). More moving are the lingering shots of modest little homes with tin roofs where ordinary Asians lived, spaces now freely occupied by spoilt chickens. There are mysterious dormitories with straw mats, precious plastic bags and cups and rows of guns. Are these barracks? Do we feel threatened or reassured that, without their guns, soldiers are pathetic and poor too?

Out of Blue 2002 (still) Writer/Director Zarina Bhimji

Still from Out of Blue 2002. Writer/Director Zarina Bhimji

The cells are also ambiguous. Black Africans occupy too slight a place in this work, yet they were the ones imprisoned and killed. Is this homage to them or is there some fiction to give a more tragic and cruel edge to our story? Hardly a dozen Asians ever died at the hands of the army in Uganda. But as a symbol of repression the shots scraping around the cell recreate the terror we all felt before we left. Perhaps this is the point. I went to Robben Island in Cape Town this year and visited the cells where Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and other ANC prisoners were held. In South Africa, blacks and Asians fought together against injustice. In Uganda we did not. But Robben Island is a tourist trap now, and the testimonies soaked into the walls and hard floors have been silenced by too much talk from guides and politicians. In Out of Blue the silent screams of the imprisoned are left intact, and the integrity is staggering.

still from Out of Blue   still from Out of Blue

still from Out of Blue

Stills from Out of Blue, Writer/Director Zarina Bhimji

The sense of loss is evocative and everywhere – you can’t help but weep to see the dying graves of Asians left behind; you can’t carry your gravestones with you. Nobody to visit, to tend to these ancestors, our past. Here in Britain, our adopted country, the graves are cold, and our elders wor ry about this as they reach the end of their lives. Out of Blue animates memory, pain and loss beautifully, but there is much wallowing. We need the critical scalpel which Bhimji uses in her other work, more challenges to assumptions and some indication that we Asians were not perfect or indispensable, the country that we have left behind is not doomed forever. We may never forget Uganda but our lives are now rooted in the United Kingdom and indomitable black Ugandans are making their paradise bloom again. We no longer have claims on each other, and that is a new freedom.

The Turner Prize – Tate Liverpool 2007

The Turner Prize has travelled outside London for the first time in its 23-year history, and you can’t help but notice that this daring excursion is making its organisers feel just a little anxious. In the capital, you see, there are enough pseuds on hand: types in architectural spectacles who are perfectly at ease ignoring the emperor’s-new-clothes element of the competition, and who wouldn’t be remotely embarrassed about discussing, in sombre tones, a film of a man in a bear suit prowling an empty art gallery. But what about Liverpool, soon to be European Capital of Culture? Won’t its citizens simply laugh out loud at the ‘art’ that has been so kindly delivered to them?

In my view, it would be to their credit if they did, but this is obviously not quite the reaction the Tate is after. Desperate to nip the sniggering in the bud, it has issued what reads like a coded warning. Across the city hang banners that read: ‘We’re open to you. Are you open to us?’ If I were a Liverpudlian, this veiled threat – ‘Don’t let everyone else think that you’re oiks!’ – would make me boil with fury. What does it say when one of our greatest galleries is reduced to telling off potential visitors – accusing them of cultural bigotry, in fact – in order to persuade them to see one of its most important shows? It says, I’m afraid, that the problem lies not with the audience, but with the work. Good work, however ‘difficult’, speaks for itself. People will want to see it.

But back to that bear. The four short-listed artists are: Mark Wallinger, Mike Nelson, Zarina Bhimji and Nathan Coley. Wallinger, who I predict will be the eventual winner, has been nominated for State Britain, his reconstruction of Brian Haw’s anti-war protest in Parliament Square. However, it is one of the many weirdnesses of the Turner Prize exhibition that it does not always include the work for which an artist was nominated and, in Liverpool, Wallinger is showing Sleeper (2004-5), a two-and-a-half-hour film in which he can be seen wearing a bear suit and gallivanting around the glinting boxes that comprise Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin – a performance he apparently acted out over 10 nights. As movies go, I can’t exactly recommend it. For real bear action try Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. This bear, when he finally appears, spends his time wandering forlornly across the gallery, sometimes pawing the glass windows, sometimes breaking into a trot. It’s sweet – and pretty funny, if you know what Wallinger looks like (he is 48 and resembles an advertising executive who’s had one too many expense account lunches) – but only for about three minutes. As for its ‘meaning’, I’d have been lost had it not been for the Tate’s notes. Here’s a summary: the bear is the emblem of Berlin which, during the Cold War, was inhabited by ‘sleepers’, surveillance operators who wore disguise; the work, then, is about identity and national memory. A curator informed us that the installation of the piece – you go into a black box to watch the film – is also significant, it being the precise opposite of a van der Rohe glass prism. I wasn’t sure about this – aren’t all cinemas black boxes? – but he was so tragically earnest (from his manner, you’d have thought he was talking about the Armenian genocide, not a grown man in a bear suit), that I didn’t feel able to stick up my hand. Sorry.

From here, amazingly, it’s downhill all the way. Mike Nelson’s piece is called Amnesiac Shrine. In the 1990s, Nelson invented a mythical gang of bikers called the Amnesiacs, and he has turned to them again for ‘their help’ in building this work, subtitled The misplacement (a futurological fable): mirrored cubes – inverted – with the reflection of an inner psyche as represented by a metaphorical landscape 2007. I don’t know how, exactly, the Amnesiacs ‘helped’ Nelson, since they don’t exist, but the piece consists of two piles of driftwood with bits of red plastic cut to look like flames attached to them and four ‘rooms’ into which you can see only through a hole in the wall. Inside these rooms are piles of sand and fairy lights which, thanks to strategically placed mirrors, seem to extend into infinity, like the desert. It’s about the Iraq war, I’d guess, but with its reliance on repetition, it’s desperately flat and unengaging.

Zarina Bhimji is also preoccupied with conflict. Her exhibited work consists of seven photographs and a film, Waiting, made in a sisal rope factory, all of which are the result of her recent travels in India and East Africa – journeys that she researched by reading ‘the biographies of policy makers in the shaping of British power within these countries’. The photographs are of crumbling walls, one of which has a row of guns leaning against it, and are notable for their lack of a human presence. The idea is that you read them as you would a face; they speak of pain and dispossession. Waiting is beautifully shot but, populated only with the ghostly by-products of rope-making, it is also intensely boring. In art, tedium is the one unpardonable crime.

Still, never mind. When it comes to sheer dullness, Nathan Coley takes home all the prizes. Coley is interested in the ‘built environment’ and, if they’re not careful, visitors will trip over two of his commentaries on it as they enter and leave the room where his stuff is gathered. At either door is a piece called Untitled (Threshold Sculpture) 2007: a low length of oak. At the press view, a reporter repeatedly asked one of the exhibition’s curators whether people would realise that this was part of the show. I thought it was a fair question. Stepping over the ‘sculptures’ myself, I assumed they’d been put there by the Tate. Now I know better, I still cannot see the point of them, and refuse to start weaving laborious metaphors about boundaries, real and perceived; my own glasses are not sufficiently architectural enough for that. Elsewhere in the room you can see There Will Be No Miracles Here, in which those words are spelt in lightbulbs and mounted on a scaffold. I’ll resist using this phrase as a neat summing up of the entire exhibition, and tell you instead that it was inspired by the decree of a 17th-century French king in an effort to put state law above the rule of God, and is another way in which Coley explores how ‘power can be inferred through public space’. Whatever. I thought it was banal, like everything else in this show bar our antic bear – and I wonder how it got here.

In London, as a panicky sop to those who feel the Turner’s absence there this year, you can see The Turner Prize: a Retropective; the work of previous winners of the prize. As an exhibition, it feels oddly scrappy but it contains enough work – exciting, even now – to show that, in the past, the prize has had at least some outstanding winners (Howard Hodgkin, Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst). In other words, it does not have to be this way. So what, this year, went wrong? Oh, there are a hundred reasons to visit Liverpool, a great and stirring city, but I cannot in all conscience tell you that the 2007 Turner Prize show is one of them.

Article from The Guardian Art Section