Land of milk, not honey … Ai Weiwei’s map of China, an installation constructed from 2000 baby formula cans. Photograph: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Who will be the star of this year’s Venice Biennale? Ai Weiwei. Not since Joseph Beuys created his sublime installation Tram Stop in the German Pavilion for the 1976 Biennale has Venice foregrounded an artist so much at the peak of his powers.
Ai Weiwei will show work in the very German pavilion whose turbulent history Beuys illluminated, and also has a solo exhibition running as a “collateral” event of the Biennale. Since he matters so much more than any other living artist right now, and operates in his own personal sphere where he can make the slightest things significant – the other day he witnessed and filmed a street fight and it became world news – there is little doubt that he will be the star. He makes art matter, and the Biennale needs an artist who can do that.
Meanwhile, a new installation by Ai Weiwei invites a comparison with the work of Beuys, his German pavilion antecedent.
Ai Weiwei has made a map of China entirely out of cans of formula milk. It comments on another of those running national sores he loves to rub salt into: in 2008, tainted baby milk made 300,000 children ill in China and killed six babies. People no longer trust domestic formula milk and now try to get it from abroad.