Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s biggest solo show, featuring a reproduction of the white cell where Chinese authorities held him for 81 days, was unveiled on Wednesday (April 2) in Berlin without Ai in attendance because the government still holds his passport.
“Ai Weiwei – Evidence”, which sprawls across 18 rooms at the Martin Gropius building museum, is a deeply political exhibition of the artist’s conceptual art. It opens on Thursday, exactly three years after he was arrested and held in detention.
German curator Gereon Sievernich, who visited the artist in his studio on the outskirts of Beijing, said Ai created several installations specifically for the show.
“About half the exhibits have been created exclusively for the Gropius building, the other half has never been shown in Germany,” he told Reuters TV. “But he had to, since he could not see himself this building. So everything had to be created in his studio in Beijing. And it has become a wonderful and very aesthetically pleasing exhibition.”
An outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s record on free speech and human rights, Ai did not attend the show’s news conference as the government retained his passport after his release.
“I may have a chance to come to the show, I hope this can be possible, but I don’t know,” the bearded artist said via video message.
Ai’s detention prompted an international outcry and Germany was among those countries that have asked for his release.
Sievernich said that his favourite object of the exhibition is “Souvenir from Shanghai” because “it stands for the terrible events which happened to him as well as his irony and humour.”
“Weiwei used the debris of his studio in Shanghai in order to recreate it as an art object. His original studio was torn down by the Shanghai municipal government after some politically displeasing comments by him. “It is a symbol of the things that happen in China,” Sievernich said.
Further on a white bedroom with foam-covered walls and surveillance cameras reproduces his prison cell in which he was held in solitary confinement. His public comments, activities and art flagrantly defy China’s strict controls on the Internet and traditional media.
The Berlin show, which runs until July 7, deals with Ai’s detention but also with modernisation in China and its perils.
In one of the most striking installations, 6,000 wooden stools gathered from villages across northern China from past centuries are packed into the neo-classical atrium.
They all share the same design but some are painted green, red and yellow, others have narrow seats. Each is unique.
In one work particularly appropriate for car-crazy Germany, Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) vases are covered in metallic paint in the same colours as those used on Mercedes and BMW automobiles. They are no longer recognizable as an ancient artefact, yet beneath the thin outer layer the history and complexity of the original remain intact, reads the accompanying text.
Ai’s career has spanned protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s, and a hand in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as creating “Sunflower Seeds,” a London-based exhibition comprised of 100 million hand-painted porcelain seeds.