Ai Weiwei is the brave and controversial Chinese artist who has been missing and kept under "residential surveillance" for six weeks now, arrested boarding a plane in Beijing for Hong Kong on April 3. Best known in the West for his part in the iconic Bird's Nest Stadium at the Chinese Olympics, he has been under pressure from that government because he is so outspoken on behalf of freedom of speech.
Ai Weiwei is one of China's most famous artists. His work makes use of old and recycled materials which he recreates into new forms. In his current exhibition, all the more poignant because of his disappearance, he recreates old objects in new materials.
For six weeks it was not known where the artist was. Recently his wife was allowed to visit him, in an unknown location, for twenty minutes. Art institutions across the world have been protesting against his imprisonment. At a Berlin gallery a banner stating "Where is Ai Weiwei?" was placed on its facade while at the Tate Modern art museum in London, the words "Release Ai Weiwei" are shining in lights from the top of its glass roof. News and information on his situation is updated regularly, as well as petitions calling for his release.
Ai Weiwei's work is always seen in a political context. He is most concerned about the loss and destruction of China's history and culture to make way for new development. Cultural vandalism is a constant theme. China in the twenty-first century tears down its history to make monuments to the present. Corruption amongst high officials is another ever present motif.
Photo: B. Alter
The beautifully crafted coffin with benches is made from wood salvaged from temples that had been knocked down so that new building developments could be constructed. Made by craftsmen, no nails or screws were used in its construction; it is all tongue and groove. It is a comment on the corruption of high officials because the chinese word for coffin is similar to the words for high official and wealth.
Photo: B. Alter
A heap of junked doors are reproduced in marble: a memorial to the thousands of houses that have been destroyed for the new, racing development taking place all over the country.
The Han vases, 2,000 years old, have been splashed with paint, again, showing the organized desecration of cultural and historical values. Everything old has to be replaced by something new. Another piece is a surveillance camera made out of marble--evoking the paranoia and omnipotence of the policing that goes on. His own studio and house were under constant surveillance.
In the basement of the gallery there is a 10 hour film of Beijing's central boulevard showing the endless stream of cars and skyscrapers in the new city.
There is a companion exhibition of his work arranged around a fountain in a courtyard of another museum. It consists of 12 massive bronze heads, each representing a sign of the zodiac. The same exhibition is also in New York's Grand Army Plaza. Both depict sculptures which were ransacked by French and British troops during the opium wars and are almost all lost to this day except for five.
On his website, once a source of stories about corruption and cover-ups in the government, there is only a dead fly to be found now.