Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s biggest solo show, featuring a reproduction of the white cell where Chinese authorities held him for 81 days, has been unveiled in Berlin without Ai in attendance because the government still holds his passport.
"Ai Weiwei - Evidence", which sprawls across 18 rooms at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, is a deeply political exhibition of the artist’s conceptual art. It opened yesterday, exactly three years after he was arrested and held in detention.
In one piece a white bedroom with foam-covered walls and surveillance cameras reproduce his prison cell.
An outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s record on free speech and human rights, Ai did not attend the show’s news conference as the government retained his passport after his release.
"I may have a chance to come to the show, I hope this can be possible, but I don’t know," the bearded artist said via video message.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Ai was being investigated by law enforcement authorities.
"The relevant person, because he is suspected of economic crimes, is being investigated in accordance with the law," ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. "No Chinese citizen is above the law."
Ai’s detention prompted an international outcry and Germany was among those countries that have asked for his release.
"Germany is a place that gives me a lot of support," said Ai, who was awarded a professorship in absentia at Berlin’s University of the Arts in 2011.
German curator Gereon Sievernich, who visited the artist in his studio on the outskirts of Beijing, said Ai created several installations specifically for the show.
"He says he wants to prove the truth," Sievernich said, in a reference to the exhibition’s title "Evidence".
Ai’s public comments, activities and art flagrantly defy China’s strict controls on the internet and traditional media.
The Berlin show, which runs until July 7, deals with Ai’s detention but also with modernisation in China and its perils.
In one of the most striking installations, 6,000 wooden stools gathered from villages across northern China from past centuries are packed into the neo-classical atrium.
They all share the same design but some are painted green, red and yellow, others have narrow seats. Each is unique.
"These stools represent a piece of individuality," Sievernich said, comparing them with mass-manufactured plastic stools. "Today they are vestiges of history."
Other works reflect on traditional handicrafts, history and modernity but are more playful and inspired by Ai’s admiration of the Dadaist and conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp’s readymades.
In one work particularly appropriate for car-crazy Germany, Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) vases are covered in metallic paint in the same colours as those used on Mercedes and BMW automobiles.
"Each vase is no longer recognisable as an ancient artefact, yet beneath the thin outer layer the history and complexity of the original remain intact," reads the accompanying text.
Ai’s career has spanned protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s, and a hand in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as creating "Sunflower Seeds," a London-based exhibition comprised of 100 million hand-painted porcelain seeds.