WATCH: His outspoken stance on human rights in China has earned him international praise. He’s been called a dissident, an activist, and an inspiration. Paul Johnson reports.
TORONTO – He’s been named the most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview magazine — but when a retrospective of his work opens at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario on Saturday, Ai Weiwei will not be allowed to attend.
Ai, the multimedia artist who has become a cause celebre for his dissidence against the Chinese government through both his art and social media, is a political prisoner, stripped of his passport after being jailed in 2011 for tax evasion, despite his supporters’ claims that it was punishment for his activism. But for the 55-year-old pariah, the government’s restrictions do little to limit what he sees as his true power.
READ MORE: 16 X 9 profile on Ai Weiwei
“Power to an artist is an encouragement and an acceptance for art to address areas and concerns that are usually considered different according to mainstream aesthetics or social norms. It gives people or a collective consciousness the strength to respond to calls for concerns that relate to our social-political conditions,” wrote Ai in an e-mail exchange with The Canadian Press.
“Rather than thinking of my political situation as a drag, I see it as an opportunity for me to think about these constraints, to act in response, and relate these actions to profound meanings. The most important of which is the message of freedom, and I hope it benefits everyone.”
Still, Ai’s work has always been about collaboration — he plays the role of the brains, of the project overseer, rather than the hands — and the touring exhibit, named “According to What?”, has forged on without him. It owes its name to a painting by Jasper Johns, which was itself inspired by Marcel Duchamp, both of whom Ai says had “quite an influence” on him, living in New York City in his early 20s.
The exhibit is a showcase of Ai’s sheer range and demonstrates the complex dichotomy of his wry sensibilities and activist passions. In one room, a massive spare white wall is lined with the names and birth dates of the 5,212 children killed in the 2008 earthquake that struck Sichuan province; it looms solemnly next to a ruptured sculpture wrought from steel gathered from the disaster zone. Just steps from that sit pop-inflected remixes of Han-dynasty urns.
“(A modern-day Andy Warhol), that’s one way to think of him — or you might think he’s a modern-day Picasso,” says Kitty Scott, AGO curator of modern and contemporary art. “It depends how you think.”
His country’s role in the Sichuan earthquake (many have lambasted the Chinese government for the shoddily built schools that collapsed to kill so many children) is just one of the issues he has highlighted. In 2008, he designed the Beijing Olympics’ iconic “Bird’s Nest stadium, only to disavow it, saying it had become a symbol of autocracy. In 2009, he underwent surgery to relieve bleeding in the brain, which allegedly occurred at the hands of police.
“I live in one of the most extreme political societies of the world, and it sees the freedom of expression as an enemy of state, threatening the society’s stability. Proposing unfamiliar ideas or expressing a different stance can be seen as subversion of state power,” says Ai.
“Using art, or any other means, to create a possibility means to provide a new space and new voice for those who are exploited or oppressed by the authoritarian state. The act re-establishes the existence of human dignity in such conditions, reminds us not to give up hope for the young generation, and encourages people to seek solutions for society with curiosity, passion and courage.”
The AGO is the first Canadian gallery to host the survey of Ai’s work, which has so far appeared in Tokyo, Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis.
“I think Ai Weiwei is very well-known, but he’s always been making things, and now those things now have the opportunity to travel through the wider world,” says Scott. “But I think it’s also very compelling to think about this: his work can move throughout the world, but the artist himself cannot.”
Ai’s detention has created some unique difficulties for Scott and the other curators of the installation, which will review more than 20 years of Ai’s photography and sculpture.
“If I were working with a contemporary artist today, most artists would be here in the space with me as I install the work,” she said. “I’m installing the show with a curator from Japan, but there’s no artist here. So that’s a very unusual thing, and that shows right away that he is facing a limitation on his practice.
“It’s challenging, because you rely very much on the artist’s eye, the artist’s way of seeing to place every object … and if you can’t physically experience the space, I think there’s a huge loss.”
But for the AGO, “According to What?” represents a major coup, and is one of the most significant exhibitions it has devoted to a contemporary artist in years.
“It’s a magnificent thing, it’s an incredible thing,” says Scott. “These artists live in our time, they experience the world we all experience, they’re the artists that in a sense we know the most about,” said Scott.
“More than anything, I wish that Ai Weiwei could see this exhibition, I wish that he could be here in Toronto, I wish he could experience this with us, because every time we make an exhibit with a contemporary artist, it’s a time to celebrate that artist.”
But despite the acclaim and the ardour from his artistic and political supporters, the fame that has followed him continues to puzzle Ai.
“I’m surprised that the world is still operating in an archaic structure, in which ordinary people like me would rarely ask essential questions about creativity and human rights,” says Ai. “I’m surprised that somebody like me would even become famous, just for demanding very basic truths and seeking ways to survive with some dignity.”
The exhibit runs from Saturday until Oct. 27.