All great art will stand the test of time. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei produced a number of monumental cast iron sculptures of endangered Brazilian tree roots for the Lisson Gallery in London. Aptly named ‘Roots’, the series of work explores themes of displacement and deforestation.
Words by Aaron Chapman
Ai Weiwei’s oeuvre is underpinned by political activism. Weiwei is openly critical of the Chinese Government’s staunch views on human rights and democracy and is now an exiled dissident who found home in Portugal. His artistic response to these subjects and themes — through an overall incredibly diverse multidisciplinary practice — has made Weiwei one of the great artists of our time.
Perhaps most famously, Weiwei is recognised for his work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. As the title suggests, Weiwei dropped a 2000-year-old ceremonial Han Dynasty Urn and captured the process in a triptych of photographs. This symbolic act of the destruction of a precious historical artefact was Weiwei’s depiction of the Mao regime’s evils, and naturally, garnered a lot of attention worldwide.
The great power of art is that it can hold our attention over time — its subject matter even increasing in relevance as the years pass. In 2019, Weiwei produced a number of cast iron sculptures from the roots of giant trees sourced in far-flung locations of Brazilian rainforests with the assistance of local communities and artisans. The Pequi Vinagreiro, an endangered tree most commonly found in the tropical state of Bahia, was a fitting subject and source of inspiration. The roots of these rare trees were moulded and cast to reveal their dramatic compositions and form.
“We are lucky that artists like Weiwei have the freedom of self-expression who in turn, offer us alternative ways to view the world.”
Despite their actual tonnage, Weiwei’s sculptures hold symbolic weight for a number of reasons. The first being that trees occupy a significant place in both mythology and popular culture. From The Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya, where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment, to the luminous Tree of Souls in the 2009 Avatar movie by James Cameron, trees are sites of spiritual connection.
Secondly, these sculptures call to mind visions of human impact on nature. Weiwei’s rust-coloured iron sculptures exist as a constant reminder of deforestation and climate change. The inherent themes in Weiwei’s ‘Roots’ series present a dichotomy between rebirth and destruction. Between the quest of spiritual connection and the looming threat of industry and human intervention.
Not long after Weiwei’s exhibition, the nearby Amazon went up in flames, pushing the rainforest toward a climate tipping point of no return. 3,358 fires were detected at one time in the Brazilian Amazon, contributing to this historic fire event and burning of a large portion of this precious natural resource.
The Amazon, often referred to as the lungs of the earth, also provides habitation and sustenance to indigenous populations. People rely on the Amazon forestry, and its destruction by fire or by hand speaks to key motifs in Weiwei’s work, such as displacement both personal and shared. Weiwei has been a prolific documentor of the plight of refugees and ‘Roots’ is quite plainly a series of sculptures that are literal, and metaphorical representations of the state of uprootedness. Whether speaking to his own experience, on the global refugee crisis, or to the Amazonian indigenous populations; Weiwei’s ‘Roots’ relates broadly to the purge of people and resources under the sword of politics.
Despite the grim undertones, we are lucky that artists like Weiwei have the freedom of self-expression who in turn, offer us alternative ways to view the world and critically engage and reflect on our society and culture. ‘Roots’ runs deep, and will stand the test of time both as physical objects and within our collective consciousness.