After being detained by Chinese authorities for five years, artist Ai Weiwei recently left the Communist nation to attend the opening of his first major survey exhibition in London at the Royal Academy of Art.
In the last four years, Ai has orchestrated more than 100 exhibitions of his work from his studio in Beijing. They’ve been presented around the world, but Ai had only witnessed them through glass screens on social media posts and on news reports.
“You see some situations through a mirror,” Ai said in a recent interview with CNN. “You don’t see the real thing but you see maybe just a reflection.”
Still, Ai has played a major role in organizing how his exhibitions develop.
For an exhibition last Autumn at Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace, curators laser-scanned and 3D-modeled the exhibition spaces giving Ai a virtual world to work with.
“We are very conscious about all the measurements, the height of the room, and what kind of lighting, and how people want to go through from one room to another,” Ai said. “So we work not just as artists but also as curators.”
In the last 11 months, RA curator Tim Marlow and RA co-curator Adrian Locke traveled to Beijing to collect the materials for Ai’s show.
This time, Ai got to experience it in person.
Welcoming him and his guests outside the RA, was The Trees – seven-meter tall sculptures bolted together from the limbs and trunks of dead trees discovered across the mountains of southern China.
In the Academy’s largest room rests 90 tones of straightened metal reinforcing bars, taken from the rubble of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake of 2008 – a tragedy that claimed the lives of more than 5,000 children in collapsed school buildings, and was blamed on poor building practices along with government corruption.
It’s a “very somber and sobering work when you see it,” Locke told CNN, “it has this kind of power and silence about it.”
But, Ai has never been one to remain silent. He’s known around the world for speaking out against the Chinese government, which in 2010 slapped him with tax evasion charges – a $2.4 million tax bill to be exact. His passport was also confiscated.
Supporters maintain the accusations were fabricated as a way to crackdown on political activists.
After his arrest, he spent 81 days imprisoned in a secret facility, and this experience is reflected through six fiberglass dioramas that make up a work called S.A.C.R.E.D.
CNN writes his arrest came as unexpectedly as the reinstatement of his passport on July 22. It also came with no explanation.
Nonetheless, Ai tells CNN he plans to stay in Europe.
“ … as an artist in defending freedom of speech, in communication, in focusing on the new type of expression that would relate to our daily struggle, or society, or political development, I’ll be always the same, no matter where. I will not change.”.