"When I was 17, I left my hometown of Shenyang, because I felt my dream was not to be found there," sang Ai Jing in her song My 1997, a popular album that propelled her to fame when she was 24. However, the singer-turned-artist has found herself back in her hometown after living in different cities around the world.
Ai's solo exhibition, My Mom and My Hometown, opened on Oct 27 at a spacious workshop in a factory in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province. Running through Jan 27, it features art in various media including installations, sculptures, photos and videos, many of which were created especially for the show.
Unlike her previous exhibition, which was held at such august institutions as the National Museum of China in Beijing and the Ambrose Museum in Milan, Ai wanted to hold her solo show in a real factory, echoing her hometown's history-Shenyang houses many State-and privately-owned factories manufacturing machinery, chemicals, pharmaceutical products and military equipment, making it one of the most important industrial cities in China.
The workshop, replete with huge rustic machines, are part of Shenyang Foundry, which was transformed into China Industrial Museum. Ai changed the workshop into a dream world she imagined based on her childhood memory-the venue evokes a special familiarity in Ai because she used to play in the factory where her father worked.
Zhu Qingsheng, an art critic and curator of the show, says that the exhibition is Ai's way to use her memory of the old days to discuss a modern problem facing the whole region: how to rejuvenate industrial cities like Shenyang as people embrace the era of information and technology.
"It's not just a problem for Shenyang. It's a common one facing all the industrial cities across the world," says Zhu.
He says the dream world the artist created to restore the glory days of the factory era can help to rebuild people's confidence.
Ai recalls she often saw workers smile and sing while working in the factory. It seemed like they were always passionate and hopeful toward work and life.
"The rustic machines and the smell of engine oil led me to the past days of my childhood-a collective memory of a generation," says the 49-year-old artist.
She has laid down a miniature patch of grassland-a copy of one that was near to her childhood home-and put some of her work on it, including Girl and Swing, Mother's Fragrance and My Mom and My Hometown.
The last is a sculpture of her mother knitting a sweater on a woolen carpet more than 10 meters in length.
Behind the sculpture is a giant red ball with a 9-meter diameter, about the size of a three-floor building. Visitors walking inside the hollow ball will smell a fragrance similar to pomade, which Ai says is the same as that used by her mother, who passed away three years ago.
"All my creations are inspired from my daily life," says Ai.
In 2015, her mother's sudden passing awakened the artist to think about what she really wanted in the world. Fame? She already earned that in the 1990s when her first album My 1997 had sold more than 200,000 copies within a month of its release in 1993.