by Harriet Thompson
I am sitting in a train compartment, surrounded by empty chairs.
The two groups of four chairs adjacent to one another in my small compartment seem to hearken to a collective, but their emptiness heightens my own sense of being an individual, alone. Looking at each chair singularly placed, I hear the echo of the statement in Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the YSP where the installation of 45 chairs are ‘spaced so that each chair is solitary’. An empty chair on a stage arguably performs in its own right; implying the person that might sit down, or emphasising the lack of such a person. In Weiwei’s collection of Fairytale Chairs, visitors are invited to sit down: a privilege not normally afforded in a world where we are encouraged to look rather than touch. Presented as a vehicle for contemplation, these chairs are situated in the nave of a former chapel turned gallery space, where the walls are painted white and the building has been emptied of the religious paraphernalia that we might expect. I decide to embark upon the quiet contemplation encouraged by Weiwei and find myself contemplating the white-washed walls of the former chapel, now emptied of religion but retaining through its shell a sense of spiritual significance. The chapel still remains a chapel. The replacement of a by-gone religion with an installation seems an unsurprising one. Weiwei’s Fairytale Chairs fill the nave with something mythical, reminding me of an Arthurian past, which never quite existed. There is an absence of organised religion, an absence of the artist himself, who is unable to visit this particular space, but the chairs, which were empty when I arrived, have begun to fill up. It’s a Sunday and the worshippers are here to pay homage to Weiwei’s religion.
Weiwei fills an empty chapel with empty chairs and invites us to fill them. Once they are filled, however, they somehow remain solitary. Far enough away from one another that whispering to the person next to you is difficult, requiring an uncomfortable lean. These are not the cushioned chairs of a train carriage. They are hard-backed, slightly oversized chairs whose discomfort prevents me from sitting for too long. Weiwei’s chairs don’t allow you to forget where you are. The chair is no longer empty but I am alone and I am left to my own quiet reflection. Sitting in the white-washed space, I am left wondering whether an empty chair is dysfunctional in its lack of a person sitting on it, or whether it functions symbolically in its own right.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Weiwei’s exhibition, the first to be held in the UK since his renowned Sunflower Seeds at the Tate in 2010, is the fact that he planned it based on photographs of the Chapel. Since having his passport confiscated by the Chinese authorities, Weiwei has been unable to leave his native country, and this exhibition is a poignant reminder of his absence.
I am sitting on a train and the chairs around me are empty. Perhaps I don’t feel alone, surrounded by those who have sat down before me and the future presence of those yet to sit.
Harriet is a writer and theatre-maker interested in the strange itch and irritation produced by performance. She recently graduated from King’s College London with a degree in English Literature, where she supplemented three years of reading books with various theatre projects and freelance writing. Harriet is co-founder of collaborative theatre company, BrowBeat Theatre.
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