Since his 2011 detention for alleged tax evasion by the Chinese government, artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei has taken the world by storm, with exhibitions and retrospectives around the world, alongside documentary profiles, constant press coverage, and a notably enigmatic heavy metal album. His ubiquity in the artworld, set in contrast to his physical restriction from leaving China, is clear, and consistent at the 55th Venice Biennale, where the artist is holding two separate solo installations.
In one of the two installations, S.A.C.R.E.D., currently on view at the Church of Saint Antonin, the artist has returned to the site of his traumatic incarceration by the Chinese state, Consisting of 6 iron boxes, the artist has created a series of half-scale dioramas, recreating the unnerving experiences and constant surveillance that he underwent while detained.
Peering into each box, the viewer is greeted with a scene from the artist’s time in prison. In one, the artist sits at the toilet, in another he sleeps on his back, hands up in a supplicating, vulnerable position. Throughout each work, the viewer cannot escape the omnipresence of the Chinese prison guards, their gazes constantly fixed on Ai’s sculptural stand-in. All notions of privacy are abolished, in favor of a sense of absolute power imposed on the artist’s body. The visitor compounds these sensations, looking in on the event as a passive observer, unable to stand in while the artist is subjected to this total captivity, and of course, all of the installation enclosed in steel box, is a direct symbol of rigid enclosure. Locked away in the deepest iron-clad recesses of China’s industrial and political might, Ai is completely removed from the outside world.
Like much of Ai’s work, S.A.C.R.E.D. is potently charged with a sense of anger, driven by the artist’s active battle against the fading memories of the events themselves. His vocal insistence on the details of the event stand in contrast with the government line, underlining not only his personal struggles against the government, but the broader war on memory that the Chinese government initiates daily through propaganda and state-controlled news organizations. Remembrance and commemoration become political acts, ritualistic practices that move beyond the personal and into the realm of direct subversion. Taking this as a starting point, Ai seems to position the works as a catalyst for his furious output of the past several years, his experience at the depths of the Chinese political machine drawing him to work ever harder.
In another work drawing from this angle, Ai is also presenting Straight at the Zuecca Project Space. Continuing his remembrance of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai presents a massive collection of crushed rebar from the children’s schools destroyed in the disaster. Painstakingly straightening each piece, Ai has filled a room with the manipulated scrap, commemorating the disaster while also seeking to atone for its occurrence, bringing the metal back to its state before the collapse, while simultaneously underlining the institutional corruption and greed that led to such substandard construction.
In a year of art fairs and exhibitions that have emphasized the emergence of the east on the contemporary arts scene, Ai Weiwei seems something of a figurehead for the burgeoning Chinese art scene. It’s a peculiar state for the artist, who has become China’s most widely regarded artist primarily by railing against a state that, for all intents and purposes, likely wishes that he would stop making his work.
Regarding his practice and position in the world of contemporary art and politics, Ai Weiwei is a perfect embodiment of the deterritorialized state that curator Massimo Gioni referenced during the fair’s opening press conference: an artist politically and physically embedded in the Far East, who has received limitless support, encouragement and patronization by the western art world. His work furthers this link: informed by both Western and Chinese fine art concepts, while politicized by a fierce individualism that sets him against the nationally dictated tone of Chinese tradition. Even so, one must wonder what Ai’s role in the global dialogue is: whether an active figurehead of his own agenda, or a vessel for the economic process of the western art market. Despite the potential agenda or otherwise behind the success and omnipresence of Ai Weiwei, his relentless output and ongoing creative activism maintains in Venice as distinct associations for the artist.
All photos by Sophie Kitching for Art Observed
The New York Times [An Artist Depicts His Demons]
The Guardian [Ai Weiwei shows Venice Biennale his many sides]
The Art Newspaper [Ai Weiwei is Present in Spirit, Not in Body]
The Independent [“Scenes of Dejection Showing Sublime Craftsmanship”]