Stef Will

Stef Will

• 22 May 2022

The liberty of doubt

I few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to see Ai Weiwei’s latest work at Kettle’s Yard Cambridge, so I thought I’d put up some impressions here (better late than never…). It was a beautifully sunny day, so I convinced my husband to come along and explore the town, while I went to see the exhibition, before enjoying some drinks by the river.

For those who haven’t been – Kettle’s Yard is the University of Cambridge’s contemporary art gallery and museum. However, next to a big, purpose build exhibition space, there is also a residential cottage with a (preciously private) art collection that’s been opened to the public for guided tours.

The exhibition explores “truth, authenticity and value, as well as globalisation”, as the curator states. On the ground floor there was an installation, where the artist juxtaposed historic Chinese objects with his own works. While some of these Chinese objects were originals, including from the Northern Wei (386 – 534CE) dynasty, others were counterfeits of original works. Ai Weiwei’s own works in precious jade, marble and porcelain explore contemporary concerns by transforming everyday artefacts including toilet paper, sex toys and a surveillance camera into iconic objects. The exhibition also included one of the artist’s most famous works, ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’, re-made from tens of thousands of Lego bricks. On the second floor, three documentary films were shown by the artist, Coronation (2020), Cockroach (2020) and Human Flow (2017), which examine the Covid pandemic in Wuhan, student protests in Hong Kong and the global migration crisis. Another piece I really liked was ‘Brain Inflation’ (below), a porcelain plate showing the MRI image of a cerebral haemorrhage that the artist had suffered as a result of police violence.

On arrival at the museum however, I was taken aback by one of the gallery’s staff asking me to put on a face mask. To clarify, there was no legal requirement to wear face masks any longer at this point (and from a scientific point of view, it was of course always nonsense, but don’t get me started on that …). The irony really wasn’t lost on me to ask visitors to cover their mouths on entering a show by an activist who has been fighting relentlessly against authoritarian suppression and psychological manipulation.

The exhibition’s title was ‘The Liberty of Doubt’, a title I loved. Ai Weiwei explains that the “ability and spirit to doubt have permeated the history of human thought and political struggle” and how “the liberty of doubt is a prerequisite for cultural and ideological development”. We all know that under certain political regimes this liberty sadly never existed, however, there is currently a dangerous trend around the globe to erode this important human right even in Western ‘democracies’ – the freedom to question and the freedom to doubt (“just trust the science!”), so the show’s title is in my mind more relevant than ever. And it’s needless to say that I politely declined to wear a mask – as Weiwei stated himself, “You have to stand up”.