On 3rd April, as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong, Ai Weiwei was arrested. He has not been seen since. Ai has become the most high-profile victim of Beijing’s crackdown and heavy-handed suppression of political dissidents.
Where is he? Unconfirmed reports refer to his torture and the world fears the worst after the state-run newspaper wrote that he “will pay a price for his special choice”. His disappearance has certainly made us more aware of the atrocities that occur in China. Between 7 and 8 million Chinese are held in prison or camps, enduring torture or enforced labour with around 5,000 suffering the death penalty every year. More than the rest of the world combined. This behaviour is ‘impossible’ – a term Ai himself coined last year in his criticisms of China’s authoritarian government.
Ai Weiwei. Image via www.frumforum.com.
Recently acclaimed for his Turbine Hall installation, Ai is a polymath – an artist, architect, designer, activist and blogger. His work at Tate Modern consisted of one hundred million porcelain sunflowers seeds all made and hand-painted in China. It’s easy to read this figure and not realise the gravitas of such a number – one hundred million is five times the population of Beijing. Each seed is unique, deeply symbolic, representing food, comfort and social interaction; sunflower seeds saved many from starvation and despair during the Cultural Revolution. As in many of Ai’s works, the seeds explore ideas of mass production (we live in an era where everything bears a Made in China sticker) challenging traditional craftsmanship and the importance of individualism.
Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, The Unilever Series, 2010, courtesy of Ai Weiwei. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
When the work was first installed in the Turbine Hall, visitors could walk, lie, sleep on and dance in the installation but, ironically, after only two days, Tate was forced to cordon off the work due to lung-damaging dust, depriving visitors of all that the seeds represented. Ai can now be compared to one of his seeds – unique as an individual who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, he has been ‘cordoned off’ for fear of the damage he may cause. Before this work opened, the state police beat Ai for condemning the government’s reaction to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan resulting in a life-threatening brain haemorrhage that required emergency surgery. Yet, Ai was never afraid. As a tribute, Tate plan to create a giant stack of the sunflower seeds on the 5th floor of the gallery, in the way Ai used to display them.
In light of what has now become one of the Chinese regime’s most controversial arrests, the two exhibitions of Ai’s work that open in London this week are particularly provocative.
Twelve traditional Chinese animal heads stand in the courtyard at Somerset House. These oversized bronze replicas of the zodiac sculptures that once adorned the fountain clock of Yuanming Yuan, an 18th century imperial summer retreat of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, are installed in an arc around the fountains, displayed in a close recreation of how they originally stood. In my opinion, had the sculptures been placed within the fountains there would be a heightened drama but there is no denying that they look brilliant. Through the oversized scale (the head and base together are approximately 10 feet), Ai focuses on the fake and the original and on issues of looting and repatriation (only seven of the original heads have been found). These are hefty bronzes dealing with hefty issues and the works have a powerful impact.
Since studying at The Courtauld Institute, I have always had a soft spot for the courtyard and, with this beacon in the teaching of art history just a stone’s throw away, the positioning of the sculptures could not be any more fitting. This is the first contemporary exhibition within the magnificent, 18th century surroundings and the sculptures rise majestically alongside the spurting fountains, tranquil despite their somewhat alarming expressions.
The animals of the Chinese zodiac are thought to influence personality and destiny. 2011 is the year of the Rabbit – ambitious and confident. A cultural insider and political outsider, Ai has never been afraid to speak out against injustice; confidence and ambition is needed by us in the campaign for Ai’s release. Indeed, there has been an overwhelming response to Ai’s capture with worldwide protests, petitions, artworks, dedications (Anish Kapoor opened his Paris exhibition this week in dedication to the artist), demonstrations, and so on.
The second London exhibition of sculpture and video is at the Lisson Gallery – the works fill both the echoing galleries perfectly. The Chinese government’s CCTV cameras have monitored Ai’s comings and goings for years and a marble sculpture of such a camera is included in the Lisson exhibition facing a real surveillance camera on the exterior of the gallery.
The theme of absence is omnipresent here; on entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by empty marble chairs. Ai may have foreseen his fate, the chair awaits his return, and the question of where he is now is made unavoidable.
His political opinions cry out from these deceptively simple yet beautifully crafted works. Through saturating ancient Chinese vases with garish colours, he questions the opposition of commercialism to traditional values. His works are subtle in their subversiveness, full of hidden meanings. The extraordinary range of his practice blends traditions, cultures and media.
Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, 2006, Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint, 51 pieces, dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist. Image via Lisson Gallery.
At the Lisson private view, guests were given the opportunity to be photographed with a sign declaring ‘Free Ai Weiwei’, uniting us in our support.
To show the art world’s solidarity and as testament to Ai’s stature all planned projects are going ahead. Ai’s detention is illegal even under Chinese law but, ironically, he is probably more dangerous now. The Chinese government have failed to be culturally aware and his arrest has shocked the world.
Would these exhibitions have such poignancy if it wasn’t for Ai’s disappearance? It is hard to say but that Ai’s whereabouts are still unknown gives gravitas to his work. He is an artist of great talent but now his art stands for something far greater.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is at Somerset House until June 26th, http://www.somersethouse.org.uk/visual_arts/1326.asp.
Ai Weiwei is at the Lisson Gallery until July 16th, http://www.lissongallery.com/.
Sign the petition calling for the release of Ai Weiwei – http://www.change.org/petitions/call-for-the-release-of-ai-weiwei.