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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.
The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is currently banned from leaving China, is creating a major work for this summer’s Emscherkunst triennial art festival (22 June-6 October), to be held in the Ruhr region in western Germany.
Aus der Aufklärung (Out of enlightenment) will consist of 1,000 tents, installed along the Emscher river. The festival, now in its second edition, is closely tied to a €4.5bn eco-project, scheduled for completion in 2020, that is designed to bring the river back to life after 100 years of industrial pollution. The festival is spread out over 47 sq. km between the participating cities of Duisburg, Dinslaken, Oberhausen, Essen, Bottrop and Gelsenkirchen.
Ai is currently overseeing the production of the tents, each of which will be unique and able to house two or three people, in his Beijing studio. Visitors will be able to rent them for the night for “a low, symbolic price”, says the festival’s curator, Florian Matzner. “The idea is to let normal [sic] people participate, and their activities will give the… work its sense.” The installation carries numerical and conceptual echoes of Ai’s Fairytale People project at Documenta 12 in 2007, for which he brought 1,001 of his compatriots to the town of Kassel, encouraging them to interact with the city and record their impressions. The work was accompanied by Fairytale, 2007, an installation of 1,001 historic chairs from China.
Ermanno Rivetti and Julia Michalska
The Art Newspaper
What are we to make of a show that calls itself Art of Change: New Directions from China? I don’t think it’s worth discussing new directions in the context of Chinese art – there were no old directions, either. Chinese art has never had any clear orientation. Yes, the artists in this exhibition, which opened at the Hayward gallery in London last week, have struggled against the limitations imposed by the Chinese state more stridently than others. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is just another attempt to introduce western audiences to so-called “contemporary Chinese art”. How can you have a show of “contemporary Chinese art” that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing contemporary issues?
I am very familiar with the work of most of the artists in the show. Their work is certainly Chinese but, overall, the show casts no critical eye. It is like a restaurant in Chinatown that sells all the standard dishes, such as kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork. People will eat it and say it is Chinese, but it is simply a consumerist offering, providing little in the way of a genuine experience of life in China today.
Widespread state control over art and culture has left no room for freedom of expression in the country. For more than 60 years, anyone with a dissenting opinion has been suppressed. Chinese art is merely a product: it avoids any meaningful engagement. There is no larger context. Its only purpose is to charm viewers with its ambiguity.
Four years after designing the spectacular Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei are to reunite for a London 2012 project.
The Serpentine Gallery announced on Tuesday that the Beijing team would collaborate again to design this year’s pavilion – the 12th commission in what has become a major annual event on the architecture calendar.
Julia Peyton-Jones, the director of the gallery, said it was “tremendously exciting”, adding: “What is so fantastic is that it is this extraordinary link of the two games, a Beijing-London axis.
“These are old and dear friends, so for them [Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Ai Weiwei], they are picking up where they left off. It is a continuation of a conversation that began in Beijing to great effect and they have conceived something really remarkable for our lawn.”
The involvement of Ai will be cheering news for anyone familiar with the tumultuous 12 months he has had.
Detained artist Ai Weiwei seems to be in good physical health but mentally conflicted and tense, his wife has said after seeing him for the first time in six weeks.
Lu Qing said she was taken to see her husband for about 20 minutes on Sunday afternoon, the first contact friends and relatives have had with the 53-year-old Chinese artist and activist since officials stopped him at Beijing airport on 3 April.
It is not clear where he is being held and the people who arranged the visit did not show her identification, she added.
“I could see redness in his eyes. It was obvious that without freedom to express himself he was not behaving naturally even with me, someone from his family,” Lu told Associated Press. “He seemed conflicted, contained, his face was tense.”
Twelve 363kg (800lb) bronze animal heads have gone on display in the historic courtyard of Somerset House in London , the first contemporary sculpture to be featured there. The artist responsible, Ai Weiwei, was the missing element, his wellbeing and whereabouts still unknown after he was detained by Chinese authorities on 3 April.
A solemn opening ceremony included readings of his sayings. Gwyn Miles, director of the Somerset House Trust, called it “a bittersweet occasion”. “Along with many people around the world, we are hoping for his quick and safe release and that he should be allowed to continue his powerful work as an artist, able to speak freely without constraint,” she said.
“We believe the best support we can give Ai Weiwei is to show his stunning new work and to demonstrate the power of his vision.”
Today was to have been the official launch of Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals installation at the Pulitzer Fountain in New York. But the end of Osama bin Laden has put an end to that, for today, because it was to have been a ceremonial New York City event with Mayor Bloomberg in attendance. (For good reason, he has other things to attend to today, in light of momentous current events.)
I have no word yet when the official opening will be rescheduled, and I have not yet been able to determine whether the sculptures are being informally unveiled today, without ceremony. You can follow the ZodiacHeads Twitter feed for late-breaking developments.
One things seems sadly certain: Ai will almost certainly not be there to celebrate his work with us.
The story of Ai Weiwei is turning into a dark fable that seems to belong in another age of modern history. In Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo, a dissident intellectual recants his beliefs under pressure from an intolerant regime. It was a hit in the US, but Brecht, a communist, decided in spite of its success to return to live in east Berlin. Later, as he observed the absurdities of the Soviet regime, he was moved to joke that the state should elect another people.
Those absurdities are brilliantly recreated in the historically set Berlin film The Lives of Others, and anyone who has watched it must surely feel a shiver of familiarity at official news from China that Ai Weiwei is co-operating with enquiries into alleged economic crimes and bigamy. Observers who side with the Chinese government on this should be ashamed, and those who dislike Ai Weiwei’s art and so welcome any prospect of his undoing are seriously confused about basic human rights. The fact is that regimes such as the Soviet and the Chinese are brilliant at exploiting weaknesses and flaws in the people they need to crush. Dissidents can be shamed and subdued in many ways. What do you think a police state is? It is a place where truth can be manipulated.
Ai Weiwei has spoken out eloquently for the universality of human rights and the worldwide hunger for freedom. Even if all the charges China are apparently raising were true, it would not alter anything – and given his brutal detention it is reasonable to assume they are false.
Two days before Ai Weiwei’s disappearance, the artist spoke out about police surveillance and harassment at his Beijing studio, and warned that “people with different minds and voices are being thrown into prison”.
Describing the scrutiny he had been receiving from the authorities, he said: “There are two surveillance cameras at my gate entrance, my phone is tapped and every message I send on my microblog is censored.
“Yesterday and the day before over a dozen police came to my place, but in my opinion, it is purely nuisance. They are coming again today,” he said, speaking to German broadcaster ARD in his last interview before he was stopped by officials at Beijing airport.
“China in many ways is just like the middle ages. China’s control over people’s minds and the flow of information is just like the time before the Enlightenment,” he said.
The artist and dissident was instrumental in one of his country’s greatest modern triumphs when he helped design the Beijing National Stadium which housed the dazzling spectacle of the 2008 Olympics.
But his outspoken criticism of the authoritarian regime in China has put him on a collision course with the government. He has recently distanced himself from the Beijing National Stadium project, which he called a “pretend smile” against the sinister backdrop of the country’s human rights record.
he 53-year-old was placed under house arrest at the weekend to stop him attending a gathering of thousands of supporters at his Shanghai studio to protest against its impending demolition by the authorities.