Ai Weiwei in the Chapel, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Ai Weiwei in the Chapel marks the world famous artist’s first exhibition in a British public gallery since Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010. On display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, until 2 November, the show is found in the park’s newly refurbished 18th century chapel following a £500,000 restoration. The presentation is accompanied by poetry readings from the works of celebrated poet Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei’s father.

An impressive six-metre high sculpture, Iron Tree (2013), can be found in the chapel courtyard, while the installation Fairytale-1001 Chairs (2007-14), is nestled inside the chapel with three other works: the porcelain Ruyi (2012); marble sculpture, Lantern (2014); and Map of China (2009). The pieces on display within the chapel relate to ideas about freedom and to the individual within society, whilst also connecting with the history and character of the building.

Ai Weiwei began his tree series in 2009 and Iron Tree is the largest and most complex sculpture within the collection. Inspired by the wood sold by street vendors in Jingdezhen, southern China, the artist’s works are constructed from branches, roots and trunks from different trees. The constructed trees appear to be living but are obviously pieced together, being all the more poignant for their lack of life. Iron Tree comprises 99 elements cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The structure combines both the natural and the crafted, and overtime the piece will rust, forcing audiences to consider the ongoing cycle of nature.

Fairytale-1001 Chairs, extends Ai Weiwei’s major project for Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, for which he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person with an antique chair. This unusual project highlighted the complications of travel for ordinary Chinese citizens. Since his arrest in 2011, the practitioner’s own travel has been strictly limited and his passport is currently confiscated. Consequently, he has built his exhibition using plans and photographs of the chapel. For Fairytale-1001 Chairs he conceived an installation of nine rows of five chairs in the nave. Spaced so that each chair is solitary, they give heightened awareness of the collective and the individual.

Ruyi, another work found in the chapel, translates to “as one wishes” and refers to wish-fulfilment. Sitting somewhere between fungal organic form and human internal organs, this lividly-coloured porcelain sculpture is one of a number of Ruyi made by Ai Weiwei that take the traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Meanwhile, Lantern makes reference to his ongoing struggle with the Chinese authorities. For some years they surrounded his home with surveillance cameras, in a humorous gesture of mockery and defiance, he decorated the real CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns. For the chapel at YSP, he has added to this series and premieres the marble Lantern, carved in stone from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recent rulers to build Mao’s tomb.

In addition to the provocative art works there is a series of readings of works by the artist’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996). Considered one of the most important 20th century Chinese poets, Ai Qing initially supported Mao Sedong. However, in 1958, he was found guilty of “rightism” and with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, was sent to a labour camp and then exiled until Mao’s death, after which the family was able to return to Beijing. The readings included in the YSP exhibition are taken from across the writer’s practice, starting in 1932, and including important poems such as Snow Falls on China’s Land, My Wet-Nurse, and Wall.

Ai Weiwei in the Chapel , until 2 November, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield.

1. Ai Weiwei, Iron Tree, 2013. Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo Jonty Wilde.