An “F” from Ai Weiwei

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Biennale

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Biennale

Unveiled just before the Christmas holiday, a public sculpture in the shape of an “F”, created by the world-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, sits on a lawn in Harbour Green Park at the north end of Bute Street. The work, enigmatically titled F Grass, has left many people guessing at what it means.

Although Vancouver has seen Ai’s works before, this is the first artwork he has created specifically for the city, at the request of the Vancouver Biennale.

Picking his spot

Ai, as a political activist, was under constant surveillance in Beijing and cannot leave China. He chose this site through imagery sent to him by the Biennale and came up with this site-specific work, which will stay there for 12 months. This is the same location as the controversial sculpture of an upside down church installed by American artist Dennis Oppenheim from 2005 to 2007.

“We have offered him lots of places to choose from in Vancouver, but he did not look elsewhere. He picked this controversial site where Dennis Oppenheim had started. Perhaps Ai wants to generate some kind of controversy,” explains Barrie Mowatt, founder and president of the Vancouver Biennale.

F Grass is comprised of 1328 blades of grass made of cast iron. Lower than knee height and mounted on a metal platform, the grass is arranged in a stylized “F”, covering an area of 13.5 square metres. Because of its horizontal orientation, it is not easy to make out the beautiful calligraphic “F” shape except from the south side facing the sculpture. Some cast iron has already oxidized and appears to be brown in colour, as intended.

“If it were elevated, the work would have been more eye-catching,” says Mowatt.

Grass, grassroots or the F word?

Despite its underwhelming appearance, the work has gotten people talking. Mowatt says that spectators are guessing what “F” and “Grass” mean for the artist, what they mean for Vancouver and what the artist wants to say about the city.

According to Shengtian Zheng, the managing director of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, the “small and humble” grass represent faceless individuals who, when held together, “bear tremendous power and vitality.” In this notion of the grassroots, F Grass can be seen as the continuation of one of Ai’s most famous works, Sunflower Seeds, exhibited in London in 2010.

Based on the news release from the Biennale, the word “grass” is pronounced as “cao” in Mandarin and it is a homonym for the Chinese character that means “f…..” F Grass is a catchphrase Ai invented to mean “f… you,” demonstrating a defiant attitude towards the online censorship in China. Using creative homonyms is one of the ways he gets around the keyword censoring on the Internet.

Mowatt is happy that the work has resonated with spectators. He says that some regards “F” as freedom, fortitude or other meanings held dearly to them.

Mowatt is also quite interested in what “grass” means for Vancouver.

“Grass can be associated with marijuana in Vancouver. The blades of grass in the sculpture resemble cannabis plants a little bit. It is very interesting to think that maybe Ai is making reference to the cannabis culture in Vancouver,” says Mowatt.

As part of the official launch of the F Grass, Vancouver Biennale started a live Twitter event to get people talking about the sculpture, highlighting the fact that Ai has been using Chinese Twitter for his activism. You can join the conversation by including @van_biennale, #van_biennale and @aiww in your tweet.

F Grass
Harbor Green Park
The public sculpture was unveiled on December 17, 2014 and will be in place for 12 months.

Detail of F Grass.| Photo courtesy of Vancouver Biennale.

Detail of F Grass.| Photo courtesy of Vancouver Biennale.