AI WEIWEI IS A MASTER of allegory, so it is no surprise that his latest creative project - curating an exhibition of 13 Hong Kong artists at Duddell's - features his trademark commentary on social and political issues. His role as sole curator included creating bespoke physical frames for each work, he says at his studio in northern Beijing .
The rosewood frames - a hardwood that Ai selected because of its historical popularity in China - recreate partial borders of the country, a conceptual geographical twist he has employed previously. Earlier this year at Hong Kong's Sheung Wan Civic Centre he created a pixilated map of China using 1,800 cans of baby formula to highlight the country's notorious food safety issues.
Ai, 56, is a controversial figure in the art world thanks to his dogged criticism of the Chinese government through provocative conceptual works. These include defacing Neolithic pottery, installations of student's backpacks representing the thousands of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to so-called "tofu construction", and October's outdoor sculpture of 3,144 bicycles in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square, which was a comment on the dramatic increase in cars and air pollution on the mainland.
His creative political activism has drawn considerable international attention, as well as sharp rebukes from the Chinese authorities. After leading a "citizen's investigation" into the Sichuan earthquake, he was beaten so badly by police in Chengdu that he suffered a brain haemorrhage. He was also imprisoned for 81 days in 2011; his passport has been confiscated, so his travel is restricted, and he remains under close surveillance.
Undaunted, Ai has embraced digital media as a borderless means of communication. Remotely curating an exhibition such as "Framed", which includes a diverse range of genres from mixed media and photography, to paintings and sculpture, was challenging but at least possible, he says. For instance, he is able to participate at the event through a live Twitter feed, which enables discussions with visitors to the show. "We are trying to give people the opportunity to be involved; to share opinions," he says.
Ai says Hong Kong's economic and geographical significance means it has the potential to develop into one of Asia's cultural capitals, but the city's cultural life is still lacking in many critical respects. "I'm very curious about Hong Kong. It is not China to me. It is its own place, but still its culture is not what it should be." This is, he says, because contemporary art needs "broader attention from society, not only from an economic or business side. It needs social, educational and political attention too."
"If a city has no philosophy of aesthetics and art, can it be called a real metropolitan culture?" he asks. "Art is about challenge, and when there is no challenge, there is no art. The city has so many educated young people, and they love art. But art is meaningless unless it questions the world around it. Not every society is prepared for that."
On a more positive note he adds, "Hong Kong has good solid artists who are as good as any others but they are not being recognised as they should. 'Framed' is the sort of collaboration that helps bring it to a conscious level of society."
He dismisses any notion that his involvement in the exhibition overshadows local artists, who include the likes of renowned art collective MAP Office, Angela Su, whose intricate drawings are inspired by her background in biochemistry, and conceptual artist Kingsley Ng Siu-king. Ng's work, Windows of the World, is a fictional map portraying a future where a mainland village is part of a theme park, reflecting the predilection for demolishing established communities.
"I don't worry about overshadowing them, and I don't think the artists do, either. They are equally good, or better than me. Although I see the show itself as conceptual art, my goal is to make a frame for their works. So the focus is very much on their art," Ai says.
The exhibition also features the work of performance installation artist Frog King, an artist Ai knew when he lived in New York during the mid-1980s. "He is well known as an alternative street artist, so I was very happy he could join us." Frog King's contribution, Frog Fun, is a mixed-media sculpture comprising 12 plastic balls, steel wire, hooks, and a wooden picture frame that he found on the streets of Hong Kong. It depicts frogs leaping out of a window in defiance of the stress of modern daily life.
The artist (real name Kwok Mang-ho) says: "I didn't have much information about the frame Ai Weiwei is making. I was just given the size limits for my own work."
Other highlights include Crazy Michael by Michael Lau, and Nadim Abbas' The Trial of Lady Chatterley, a provocative digital print that spells out the titles of two exhibitions by Ai Weiwei.
"The mainland Chinese tourists depicted in the establishing shot had seen me taking photos outside a local PRC ministry office, and asked if I could take one of them as a keepsake," says Abbas.
Ai says he wants visitors to consider the complexity of Hong Kong's identity and the "matter of one nation, two systems. Questions that have been there for decades and are still unanswered."
"Framed: Ai Weiwei and Hong Kong Artists", Duddell's, Levels 3 & 4, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central, until February 15, 2014