China’s activist-artist Ai Weiwei steals show at Venice Biennale

by Diane Francis

Ai Weiwei in jail

VENICE – The Biennale is the world’s oldest and most prestigious art exhibition and the Chinese caught most of the imagination and publicity here.

The star of the show, on and off-grid, was Ai Weiwei, the Chinese activist-artist and architect who has been jailed for his outspoken creations and remains under house arrest for alleged tax evasion.

His most controversial piece, jail-like tombs, were housed in a cathedral that had been put in mothballs but was restored for his off-site exhibit. The six tombs are dioramas depicting his 81 days in jail in China – sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, being interrogated, showering and sitting – in a tiny cell with two guards present at all times.

The lead boxes, slightly smaller than life-size, had two slits that allowed the public to view his imprisonment. It was a chilling depiction of abuse by China against one of its greatest talents. Weiwei designed the spectacular bird’s nest stadium that was featured during the Beijing Olympics and has an impressive body of work, often pointed at China’s human rights and corruption problems.

His second piece, “bang”, is famous and a whimsical look at, or metaphor to describe, our interlocking and unconnected existence. It’s also interesting to note that only a few of these dozens of antique stools (886 in total) are in unique colors, representing the fact that the Chinese population is 97% Han ethnically. Figuratively, the colored stools not only represent the small percentage of people from minorities living under that oppressive regime, but also signifies how few individuals have freedom or can “show their true colors”.

The context of “bang” is also interesting: it was the principle exhibit in Germany’s Pavilion at the official Biennale. It occupied a preferred place, despite his house arrest and despite the fact that German artists are highly regarded globally. It was a statement of import, given that Germany is the largest western exporter of manufactured goods to China.

I spent the longest time in China’s official Pavilion where its video artists portrayed three frightening and intriguing films on giant screens to stupendous music that depicted the country’s (and world’s) struggle to integrate west and east, rich and poor, over-population, industry and environment.

One cartoon, on a background of traditional Chinese paintings and artifacts, showed Snoopy, the cartoon character from “Peanuts”, on a harrowing odyssey of monsters and storms.

The second best country exhibit was the United States where a brilliant American artist of Chinese extraction, Sarah Sze, used the elements of construction sites to illustrate the disorientation, fragility and temporal nature of our existence.

One installation has a raft of tools and building materials encircling the resting place of a plumb-bob, used to provide a line for measurements in order to build stable, vertical walls. Her plumb-bob is attached to a ceiling motor that guarantees it never rests, nor can it ever define a stable, vertical line.

This metaphor, of random and unpredictable events in future, was commonplace throughout the Biennale. While the 2013 exhibition has not been notable for breakthroughs as significant as in the past, this one will be remembered for demonstrating that China, and the world’s most talented artists, get it.