Rare Towel, 2015

Ai Weiwei - Rare Towel
Installation view: Rare Earth, TBA21, Vienna 2015
Photo: Joe Clark | TBA21

China contains more than 30 percent of world’s rare earth deposits and controls 85 percent of the global market for these materials. Yet most people seem to be unaware of this state of affairs—and its political economy. Ai Weiwei’s work addresses the ubiquity of rare earth applications through the divergent frames of labor and leisure. Its scenography comprises a series of white beach towels, each embroidered with the phrase “rare earth” in a glow-in-the-dark synthetic yarn whose active ingredient incorporates the element Europium. Presenting a comfortable and familiar item at first glance, this accouterment hides something toxic in close proximity to our body—“a kind of danger existing in a very common condition,” as Ai puts it. The work suggests ease, comfort, and recreation, in stark contrast to the mines—some illegal, many with unfortunate safety records—from which rare earth materials are extracted throughout China. 
Rare Towel, 2015 has been commissioned by TBA21 for the exhibition Rare Earth at TBA21-Augarten.

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 in Beijing, where he lives and works. His practice is compelled by a sense of social conscience and extends across many roles, from filmmaker and photographer to writer, publisher, curator, architect, and activist. Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy and later, on moving to New York (1981–93), continued his studies at the Parsons School of Design. He has had major solo exhibitions at Martin- Gropius-Bau, Berlin (2014); Indianapolis Museum of Art (2013); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2012); Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan (2011); Tate Modern, London (2010); and Haus der Kunst, Munich (2009). Among numerous awards and honors, he received the lifetime achievement award from the Chinese Contemporary Art Award in 2008 and the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation, New York, in 2012.