Last week I went to The Heong Gallery at Downing College in Cambridge to see the exhibition Cubes and Trees by the brilliant artist Ai Weiwei. Although technically it’s not much to do with interior design, the exhibition was rather lovely and so we thought it deserved a blog!
Ai Weiwei is somewhat of a controversial artist, due to the subject matter of his work, which spoke out against the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei was arrested and imprisoned in 2011 for 81 days, and up until 2015 he was deprived of his passport. It is this that has led to a worldwide reaction and intrigue into his work, and since having his passport returned to him Ai Weiwei has exhibited his work in some of the world’s major museums, including a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, which featured some of the same pieces available to see at The Heong Gallery.
Cubes and Trees is a simple, non-fussy exhibition that does exactly what it says on the tin, and the latter part of the title is by far my favourite piece. Comparatively, when I went to go see Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy, it was a cold December morning and these beautiful trees where placed in the grand courtyard of the building. To see the piece then, in those circumstances created a looming, dramatic effect, but what a difference and change of location and season can make! Yesterday the sun was bright and shining, and the trees though still as equally dramatic had a serenity about them that created a very calm and peaceful encounter.
From afar the trees may appear ordinary, however as soon as you get a closer look you can see all of the wonderful details. Each tree is made up from multiple deconstructed trees, found in a market in Jingdezhen in China. The cut up branches and trunks and fixed together with nuts and bolts to create a beautiful, but raw appearance. What is so clever about this artwork, is that upon viewing it for the first time you may think that each piece is just a single tree cut up and put back together again, but in actual fact each final tree is created from several trees, all in different variety, shapes and sizes, each piece carefully crafted to fit together perfectly.
Ai Weiwei has commented on the piece, “We assembled them together to have all the details of a normal tree. At the same time, you’re not comfortable, there’s a strangeness there, an unfamiliar-ness. It’s just like trying to imagine what a tree was like”. The trees are interestingly placed in front of the neo-classical buildings of Downing College, which, like the deconstructed/reconstructed trees, and an interpretation of what its original counterpart would have looked like. Both the building and the trees are an imitation of something, and there is a wonderful synergy between them.
Inside the main area of the gallery, four one-metre square cubes are situated in a row taking up almost the entire length of the floor space. Each cube is made up for a different material, Crystal, Tea, Ebony and Wood.
The Crystal Cube, made in 2014, creates a distorted vision which is encouraged further by the placement of a mirrored surface place on the bottom. This helps to create the cube-like effect, it’s like you’re looking into a vat of solidified water.
The second cube in the sequence is made up of one ton of compressed Pu-er tea leaves, a traditional Chinese tea. As the room get warmer the aromatic fragrances of the tea become more and more potent.
The third cube is titled Cube in Ebony, made in 2009 from Zitan wood. Zitan wood, which grows in China is expensive, and it is often rare to find furniture made from it. In creating these cubes Ai Weiwei comments on Chinese culture’s traditions and customs. There is a perfect blend of modern geometric forms and traditional Chinese materials and decorative conventions. The last cube instalment is made from honey-toned Huali wood and is called Treasure Box. This piece is a little more interactive then the previous three, it is made with an excruciating amount of precision, and when dismantled it can turn into different forms of furniture. This piece is both a play on larger traditional Chinese furniture as well as Puzzle Boxes, which conceal their openings and can be used to hide things in for those in the know.
Cubes and Trees is a wonderful exhibition, full of eye-catching pieces with intriguing stories to tell of both the works and the artist, as the curator of The Heong Gallery Rachel Rose Smith confirms, “Both groups of works attest to the power of Ai’s use of forms, materials and places to reveal more about how we interact with our environments”. It’s a sure must of any Cambridge local to go and take a look at.
For more information on opening times, visit: http://www.dow.cam.ac.uk/index.php/heong-gallery