Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Encages a Cactus in Latest Work

Courtesy of Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, A Living Sculpture 2012

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is one of China's most famous and bravest artists. He is also one of the most controversial. His works are laden with political messages of protest, for which he has been pursued by the government.

This small work, A Living Sculpture, consists of a cactus in a pot with a River Crab beside it. The piece is enclosed in a white cube.

ai wei wei grows catcusBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

The River Crab is hand-made of orange clay and sent from his workshop in Jingdezhen, China. In Chinese, river crab is a homonym for harmony as well as a popular euphemism for censorship.

Ai Weiwei, Studio Portrait 2012

At present the artist is not allowed to leave China because of his alleged income tax violations and "economic crimes", according to the Chinese government. This work, set behind glass and inside a box, is a powerful metaphor of protest.

The fifteen year old cactus had to be a particular specimen, a Ferocactus. It's resilient and prickly and surviving in a confined space. The crab is surviving beside it.

ai wei wei grows catcusBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0
Watermelons, 2006

Recently, another of his works was on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He has used ceramics in his work extensively because they are such an ancient Chinese art and so symbolic of China's past and achievements. The ceramic watermelon is bigger and shinier and more colourful than the real thing. He is questioning the boundary between real and fake.

ai wei wei grows catcusBonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0
Sunflower Seeds, 2010

In 2010 he filled the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern art museum with 100 million sunflower seeds; each one individually sculpted and painted by Chinese artisans. Ai Weiwei has said that "he chose to reproduce sunflower seeds in porcelain because during the famine years under Mao they were one of the few reliable sources of food, comfort and social interaction. For him they symbolise the Chinese people. Seen through his eyes, the piece is a powerful political statement about the relationship between rulers and the ruled in China."

Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Encages a Cactus in Latest Work
It's only a cactus and a crab but it carries a pot load of meaning.

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