AI WEIWEI, White House, 2015, wooden structures of a residential house from the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), paint, 570 × 1000 × 800 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Ai Weiwei @ Helsinki

Helsinki Art Museum

Were you to be flying over Finland, one of the first things you might notice is the profusion of green that covers so much of its landscape. Not the light green hue of pasture and fields, but the deep, dark emerald of pine and spruce. With 65 percent of the country covered in forest, wood is not just an important everyday material, but an element that is deeply embedded in Finnish culture and life. Clearly, then, it is no coincidence that the main theme for Ai Weiwei’s first solo exhibition in Finland is wood. It is also the artist’s first exhibition focused on just one material.

The Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), where the exhibition takes place, is located within one of the city’s most iconic buildings—the beloved Tennispalatsi, built originally for the 1940 Summer Olympics. HAM chief curator Erja Pusa and curator Heli Harni worked with Ai to select the 27 works that comprise “Ai Weiwei @ Helsinki,” which include the two recent works Garbage Container (2014) and the impressive, 80-square-meter White House (2015). The fact that HAM has chosen wood as the common denominator for the exhibited works, rather than a particular theme, is refreshing: the exhibition, in effect, does not pretend to be another “end all be all” presentation of Ai’s oeuvre.

It does, however, mean that the uninitiated viewer may find it challenging to grapple with some of Ai’s leitmotifs—namely, his critical take on the destruction of culture for industrial progress, as well as human rights and freedom of speech, to name a few. While there are select wall texts available explaining Ai’s work, they feel more like random snapshots than a coherent narrative. One could perhaps argue that Ai has reached a point where it could be assumed that the average visitor is familiar with at least the broad strokes of his career—such as his interest in the ready-made; his controversial blog; his independent investigation of student deaths caused by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China; his detention by Chinese authorities in 2011; and so on.

AI WEIWEI, Garbage Container, 2014, Huali wood, 240 × 160 × 100 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

AI WEIWEI, Handcuffs, 2011, Huali wood, 40 × 13 × 2.50 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Much of Ai’s work builds on the juxtaposition between object and material. Take, for example, Handcuffs (2011)—which is made of expensive Huali rosewood—and a six-meter-tall tree sculpture literally titled Tree (2010). As forests and old buildings are being razed to make room for modern developments, artworks such as Tree, composed of dead trunks and branches, seek to cobble together what has been lost to remake them anew. Meanwhile, Through (2007), an installation of angular, intertwined antique tables and old temple pillars, explores notions of borders and crossing, but is also significant for its use of the now-extinct Tieli hardwood. Similarly, the capacious White House (2015) is a Qing-dynasty-era building saved from demolition. Painted white, its rafters and beams seem to resemble the skeleton of some great, ancient creature—like leviathan bones bleached from the sun.

This interest in heritage and craftsmanship dates back to Ai’s earliest works, and his appreciation of wood (not just as a medium, but as an important historical element in Chinese culture) resonates aptly with Finnish culture and history. It was the pine tree whose bark was used as substitute bread to stave off famine during the 1918 Finnish Civil War. The birch, meanwhile, was used to make everything from shoes to utensils in the country, before plastic ruled the roost. In Finland, wood is everywhere—from jewelry made by upmarket designer Aarikka to the iconic furniture of Alvar Aalto to even the chemical makeup of the sugar substitute Xylitol in their chewing gum. The Finnish Easter dessert mämmi (an acquired taste, being as it is heavily reliant on rye flour and molasses) is traditionally served in birch-bark bowls. Finns also invented the woodhouse sauna and even Nokia started off as a paper factory. In fact, Ai’s sprawling 15-by-13-meter Ordos 100 Model—an ambitious and as yet largely incomplete architectural project that the artist collaborated on with Swiss architect firm Herzog & de Meuron—is a veritable symphony of carved pine wood that looks suspiciously like the insides of a standard Helsinki apartment.

AI WEIWEIOrdos 100 Model (2011), Frames (2013), Through (2007) and IOU Wallpaper (2011–13). Installed for “Ai Weiwei @ Helsinki” at Helsinki Art Museum, 2015. Courtesy the artist. 

Also on view are three Finnish-themed photographs from Ai’s “Study of Perspective” series (1995– ), as well as two videos. The latter includes Dumbass (2013), a music video made as part of the artist’s foray into heavy metal, which riffs on Ai’s experiences of being detained by Chinese authorities.

At this point in the show, there doesn’t yet seem to be a comfortable sense of cohesion. It is only made evident when one reaches Garbage Container (2014). At over two meters tall, the work initially appears to be an expensive, wooden wardrobe, but is, in fact, modelled after a garbage container in China. It is meant as a tragic commentary on rural poverty in China and the hard fate of the some 60 million children who are left behind by parents forced to earn a living far from home. While lucky ones are left in the care of relatives, others are abandoned completely. In 2012, five homeless boys aged 9 to 13 sought shelter inside a garbage container, only to die of carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to light a fire to stave off the cold. The incident was widely reported in the Chinese media and drew parallels to Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl. The tributary Garbage Container is an elegant work, at once beautiful and despairing. It is evidently no coincidence that the adjacently placed installation, Rebar and Case (2014), created in reference to the Sichuan Earthquake, resembles child-sized coffins. From this vantage point, the deeply personal connection that Ai is able to make with the viewer is clear—even when working on a large scale, each and every of his pieces make a raw statement that is impossible to ignore.

“Art is popcorn for the brain,” declares HAM’s signature tag line, emblazoned on various paraphernalia in the museum gift store. Yet Ai Weiwei’s work is certainly not popcorn. It’s not light and fluffy. Instead, it’s straightforward, solid and honest—like Finnish pine.

“Ai Weiwei @ Helsinki” is on view at the Helsinki Art Museum until February 28, 2016.