The Unrelenting Ai Weiwei Show Evokes Danger and Urgency of Art
A major exhibition opens in Berlin this week of the work of Ai Weiwei, China's most famous artist. Events like this are the very thing that protect him against further repression at home. The show is packed with moving works that are critical of the regime.
Mr. Chang has worked for Ai Weiwei for the past 20 years. He's in charge of implementing the designs created by the artist. For the jail cell, for example, they needed two months, after which a music video was filmed, ending with a bald-headed Ai looking into the camera wearing red lipstick. Later they dismantled the cuboidal blocks, numbered the pieces and shipped them across the ocean in containers. Now Mr. Cheng is standing inside Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau, a large old building that is used for major art exhibitions.
Within a few days, he and a few colleagues managed to reassemble the modules. The external walls aren't of importance -- it's the interior that's crucial. It is a copy of the room in which Ai Weiwei was locked up for almost 12 weeks in 2011. It wasn't a normal jail cell.
Ai still doesn't know today exactly where he was detained, only that it was likely on property used by the military. He had the room rebuilt from his memory. The outside of the door is labelled with the numbers "1135," making it resemble a hotel room. The room itself is quite large, at 26 square meters (269 square feet), the flooring is imitation parquet and there are two damask-patterned curtains. The window, however, is high, small and barred. The walls are also covered in foam plastic which is covered with foil. It's a provisionary padded cell. A few openings in the coating enable a glimpse of the actual wall covering, flower-patterned wallpaper. There's a small bathroom in the corner. Ai had to wash his clothes himself.
After three or four minutes, the cell feels stifling. Ai was allowed to return home after weeks, but others in China disappear forever, somewhere.
81 Days of Uncertainty
Mr. Cheng was working on behalf of Ai in Europe in 2011, assembling an exhibition. It was there that he learned that Ai had been led away at the airport. Eighty-one days of uncertainty ensued. Now the cell has become a work of art, titled "81".
Outrage around the world was considerable at the time, and Ai was released in June 2011. The authorities withheld his passport. Although he is able to travel within China again, he hasn't been permitted to leave the country -- at least not with a guarantee that he would be permitted to return home again. Many influential people, right up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been campaigning for the Chinese government to allow Ai to travel again.
Even if his passport is returned to him, however, there is one thing that cannot be changed: The fundamental conditions in the country and the threats that dissidents are exposed to in China. And that's the focus of the new exhibition in Berlin. With or without a passport, Ai remains an enemy of the state. From the perspective of the international community, artist Ai, along with author and Nobel literature prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, who has been sentenced to a long prison term, is the most famous opponent of the Chinese regime. He lives in Beijing, a city with 21 million residents in a country with 1.4 billion inhabitants. For many in the West -- particularly in Germany and in art capitals like London and New York -- he is the only Chinese name they are familiar with and whose story rouses them emotionally.
The Burden of Repression
The fact that he is so famous protects him and also enables Ai to continue working. But it is also a situation he must maintain. He has to be the topic of discussion --- globally and enduringly -- and it is this kind of courageous Ai that the public craves. But it is also a limitation, and a burden. It means there is no time for any break, he cannot allow himself to drop off the radar, show understanding or embark in a new direction. He'll always be in a position where he is forced to be the rebellious, political Ai.
But he has never been terribly shy about forcefully expressing his opinion. In 2000, he served as the co-organizer of a show in Shanghai called "Fuck Off." It was the verbal equivalent of giving the system the middle finger. For many in the Western art world, it was the first time they heard his name. The exhibition opening in Berlin this week is called "Evidence".
It may sound demure, but it is intended as something more provocative because the artist is demanding an explanation and proof from a state. There is no justifiable reason for Ai to have been bullied for years now. No one has ever provided any true evidence of wrongdoing on his part.
The Resented Artist
Instead, almost all signs indicate that the authorities resent his art. In 2009, for example, after thousands of children died in an earthquake in the Sichuan province, he made an issue out of the fact that the government hadn't built schools that are earthquake proof and, by not doing so, had put the lives of children at risk. Shortly after, he was beaten by secret police officers, placed under house arrest, detained, let go and then repeatedly called in for questioning.
In 2012, the year after his arrest, he was placed on trial under dubious circumstances for alleged tax evasion. The proceedings were farcical. An entire convoy of secret police vehicles parked in front of Ai's studio to prevent him from entering into the courtroom. Even today he remains the subject of observation and persecution. He's shadowed everywhere he goes.
Ai defends himself in his own way, by creating works of art designed to vex his country, even if he isn't allowed to show it in China. Indeed, even as much of his art seems autobiographical, the actual subject of all his work is China.
His new series of metal sculptures in Berlin once again evokes the earthquake in Sichuan and the deaths of many thousands of children. He had steel rebar, intended to reinforce the concrete, pulled out of the rubble. He welded a number of the rusty rods into objects that are simultaneously modern and archaic.
That's not the only work that directly references China. In another, he reconstructs a group of islands located in the East China Sea rich in oil and natural gas deposits that Beijing is seeking to claim. His medium of choice is marble, the material of the powerful and a lithic gesture.
'Souvenir from Shanghai'
In 2011, before his imprisonment, the authorities in China ordered the dismantling of his newly completed studio in Shanghai. First they encouraged him to build it, but then they claimed it hadn't been approved. The walls were demolished, but Ai kept the debris. Some of it has been sent to Berlin, which in and of itself is symbolic given the city itself was laid to waste and was the world capital of debris after World War II. Ai Weiwei being Ai Weiwei, he had no other choice but to transform the stone into a highly aesthetic sculptural work called "Souvenir from Shanghai."
Despite the gloomy aspects that feature in a lot of his work, the first object one sees when entering the exhibition hall comes across as something easy, light and, as such, almost cheerful.
Hanging high above the floor of one exhibition room is a massive installation comprised of bicycles. It feels like a continuation of the famous bicycle sculpture by Marcel Duchamp, an aficionado of ironic art and inventor of art derived from ready-made objects whose work is very much admired by Ai Weiwei. As with so many of Ai's works, the object is inspired by a true story. The hanging sculpture is named after Yang Jia, a man who was arrested in 2007 for riding a bicycle he borrowed from someone that allegedly hadn't been registered. He was arrested, accused of theft and abused by his guards. He then dared to complain about the way he had been maltreated. When an attack was perpetrated on a police station in Shanghai in 2008, officials claimed Yang had been responsible. There was much suggesting he hadn't committed the crime, but he was executed nonetheless.
A Schizophrenic Situation
Ai Weiwei created a documentary about the case. He often creates films about cases of abuse. It's a schizophrenic situation because the artist is endangering while at the same time protecting himself with all these images.
He also documents his life on Instagram, showing himself in the bathtub, at the market, greeting his visitors, showing new works, the flowers people send him so that he can dutifully place them in the basket of a bicycle he keeps parked in front of his studio. Given that Ai Weiwei visually documents and shares virtually every aspect of his life, it seems all the more absurd that he continues to be monitored. And yet it remains obvious that he is still deeply attached to his country: It's even possible that Ai Weiwei can only act as himself in China. Yet through his work, he also makes clear to the world that even under the most adverse of circumstances, there are often still ways that it can be possible to exercise the right of self-determination -- at least to a certain extent.
Ai Weiwei is the son of a writer who was forced to endure years of exile far from Beijing -- a fate his son also had to endure as a child. Later, his father became a revered figure; indeed, his son had the option of living a comfortable life. He was something of a prince, a term the Chinese give to the scions of influential men. Ai didn't want it.
The authorities saw his own son as proof of wrongdoing, because the boy came out of wedlock, and he was accused of bigamy. Ai knows that his life could be a lot easier if he lived it elsewhere. He has traveled extensively abroad and spent years as an artist in New York. That he has now become such an important artist is in no small part due to the fact that he has been able to endure the conditions in his home country for so long.
Marlene von Carnap, a young German woman, has served during the past two years as one of Ai's assistants. She says he often receives visits from normal people and that he provides support to other dissidents. He gets a lot of visitors from abroad -- important art world emissaries. The effect Ai has on people is a cross between Gandhi and Picasso. Morally, he is in the right place, and his art is also positioned correctly.
It's a charge bored art critics might one day volley his way. It might be easy for them to accuse him of repetitiveness as an activist, a good person and as an artist. The cell where he was kept isn't new. He exhibited smaller versions of it (with peep holes and figures representing Ai inside) in a church in Venice in 2013. And one could suggest that the porcelain crayfish being shown in Berlin are an inadmissible continuation of the ceramic sunflower seeds that he recently exhibited at the Tate Modern in London.
Expressing the Desperation of a Totalitarian State
In that sense, each work demonstrates Ai's quest to find artistically adequate forms to express the desperation that a totalitarian state triggers in people. His works are full of metaphors, but they are also ones that people can easily comprehend. In a country where many people chose to remain ambiguous, this is indeed a special quality. Above all, Ai serves as a reminder of just how dangerous and important art truly is.
At the beginning of March, a press conference took place inside the Martin Gropius Bau building in Berlin, where the exibition will be housed. At the event, a Berlin lawyer, joined by a gallerist who supports the artist and the president of Berlin's Academy of Arts, declared that Ai is innocent in narrowest legal sense.
The video message from Ai himself was impressive. He didn't come across as any kind of hell raiser. He spoke slowly, almost unsure of himslef. But he also served to remind people of his plight in advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Berlin last week. The artist's supporters also got invites from German President Joachim Gauck to an official state dinner with the Chinese leader. Alexander Ochs, a gallerist who supports Ai, says he is cautiously optimistic at the moment about Ai's future.
And yet, China remains a dictatorship that makes life difficult for people like Ai, shadowing and spying on him. At the same time, it astonishingly still allows him to show his work abroad. If the government allowed him to travel, he would be received as a celebrity around the world.
This fall, a show of his work is planned in San Francisco. It's going to be held at the former high-security prison Alcatraz. As depressing as this may sound, it's an appropriate venue for his work.