At first glance, Ai Weiwei’s ‘La Commedia Umana – Memento Mori’, which hangs in the center of the opulent basilica on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, resembles a grandiose sculpture in the typical shape of a Murano glass chandelier. And it is indeed made in Murano, piece by piece (more than 2000 pieces), with 2700 kilos of frosted black glass, unfolding in a composition six meters in diameter and almost nine meters high, which took more than three years. But it is far from the frivolous grace and charming floral motifs of traditional Murano glass: as we approach step by step the solemn church flooded with light, designed by Andrea Palladio in the late sixteenth century, the elements that make up this great composition become clear: skulls, shinbones, thighbones, pelvis, rib cage, lungs, intestines, livers, hearts, skeletal hands and feet, but also skulls of animals (dinosaurs?), with here and there a surveillance camera thrown into the human body and small parts cartoon birds that recall the symbol of a well-known social network. Alienating, shocking, curious, mysterious, enchanting: close observation makes a different impression and evokes different associations in each visitor. The work undeniably has a great emotional impact.
The choice of form, a chandelier without light, and glass, a traditional material in Murano, are representative of Weiwei’s career: “I love the wisdom of the past and I think we would be lost without understanding the past” , says the artist, who created the work in collaboration with the master glassblowers of Berengo Studio. “We used glass to invent a new language. We started with a skill, making glass, and changed all the details. Glass is a special material; in his presence we reflect on the relationships between life and death, and between tradition and reality. I never do anything purely for the beauty itself, but to understand something new and get to know myself better,” he concludes. The glass of Ai Weiwei is matte black, does not reflect light and is not transparent. The elements that make up the work may seem disturbing, but in fact they have something to say about all of us, about what it means to be human, about our organs, about life divided into its mechanisms. The idea of physicality alongside video surveillance cameras and symbols of digital communication provocatively suggests how these entities have become part of our essence. And, in the case of Ai Weiwei, emblems of our control by the great powers, whether economic or geopolitical.
Adriano Berengo, a versatile glassblower and creative designer, founder of Berengo Studio in Murano, made a decisive contribution to the creation of the work, which can be seen until 27 November, as well as the other works of the artist. Berengo comments: “This Memento Mori is a dream come true. I am very grateful to the Abbey for hosting the exhibition: there is no more magical place to hang this chandelier, this hanging sculpture, as a hymn to God. Ai Weiwei is a great collector; when he came to Murano, he saw this great tradition of glass-making dissolve in weary repetition of the same themes; his works are intended to encourage young people to feel a sense of imitation and restoration of the past, using an ancient technique in a contemporary idiom.”
The dialogue that the artwork enters into with the spaces in the basilica is itself part of the message, a kind of environmental and conceptual answer to Memento Mori’s questions. According to Stefano Visintin, Abbot of San Giorgio Maggiore, whose non-profit organization Benedicti Claustra Onlus has opened the spaces of the abbey to dialogue with contemporary art: “We wanted to restore this kind of dialogue in San Giorgio. The chandelier without light by Ai Weiwei may seem like a dark project, but it is actually intended as a moment of reflection on our vulnerability, emphasizing the importance of the present, to make life not a comedy, but a contribution to others , and to creation. As Ai Weiwei himself has said,” he concludes, “there are no lights in the work because it is the work of art itself that turns the inner lights back on in those who observe it.”
Captions and credits
All images courtesy of Ai Weiwei, Berengo Studio
From 01 to 09: Ai Weiwei, La Commedia Umana – Memento Mori, Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 2022, presented by Berengo Studio
01, 07, 09, photo credit Francesco Allegretto
02 Portrait of the artist before the artwork; photo credit Oliver Haas
03-06, 08 photos by Savino Cancellara
10 Ai Weiwei, Zodiac, 2018, Lego bricks; photo by Adam Reich
11 Ai Weiwei, Roots, Abbey of San Giorgio Maggiore; photo credit Francesco Allegretto
12 Ai Weiwei, Untitled (fish), glass (2022), Abbey of San Giorgio Maggiore; photo credit Francesco Allegretto