The upcoming exhibition (opening 3 April 2014 at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau) by the multi-talented and outspoken Ai Weiwei promises to be his biggest solo show yet. Spanning over 3,000 square meters in 18 rooms, a huge variety of the Chinese artist's works will be on display, many of which have been especially created for the Martin-Gropius-Bau. The exhibition—whose pieces are yet to be revealed—is called "Evidence," and is a reflection upon Ai Weiwei's own experiences. It also recalls the idea of art as a practice of making people regain and reclaim their autonomy, have agency and live consciously in a networked world.
We met with Ai Weiwei at FAKE, his studio/residence in north-east Beijing's Caochangdi art district. The first encounter—before FAKE's green gate, surrounded by surveillance cameras—is the artist's floral bike protest. For reasons never explained by authorities, Ai Weiwei's passport has been confiscated since his imprisonment in 2011 and the flowers in the bike basket, replaced with fresh ones every morning, stand as a silent and beautiful protest against his imprisonment.
The word "evidence" itself is a reflection of the contradiction the artist has been experiencing in his own life. "We live in an era which, on one side, there's an increasing need for communication; on the other side, in our real life, a great part of the evidence—the real situations—are concealed. Then in media and on the internet, but also in the legal system, people can't have access to evidence. We normally think of evidence as a trace or an object left by some behavior, which can fundamentally define the meaning of the behavior itself," he says.
Indeed, the fact that the artist has been detained for 81 days, officially for a tax issue—evidence of which has been confiscated by police from his offices in the form of computers, hard drives, cameras and memory cards—might be "evidence" of his private life and political interests.
Ai Weiwei is an artist who always valued the great freedom that web communication has brought to society—as a tool to explore the world, but also as a platform to have a dialogue with people beyond the restraints of personal situation. His Twitter account still brings his free voice outside the borders of China. "I think that the internet—despite the fact that in China is heavily limited and controlled—is becoming bigger and bigger and we see that humanity is constantly fighting for internet freedom, for a free and fast flow of information, China's efforts are going in a totally different direction."
We see that humanity is constantly fighting for internet freedom, for a free and fast flow of information.
"They [the government] unceasingly struggle to find ways to limit and control freedom of speech. But the internet can bring hope to younger generations—they can have access to more information. They certainly have a space to communicate. Well, in China we never had such a platform before, and this platform—at last—has a key role in any change we're going to see in the future," he continues, in a seemingly wary but ultimately optimistic thought.
"Every artist is also an activist—and if an artist is not an activist, then he's no artist."
The "artivist" label bestowed to him doesn't sit well with Ai Weiwei, who sees activists and artists as the same thing. "I'm a person—actually I'm a really common person—and I'm a person who's getting older. I've experienced many things in China. I share with many other people my experience, as well as my emotions and my expressions. If there's something different than other people, the difference is that I am an artist; I give more importance to express myself. I want to say out loud whatever I think. Every artist is also an activist—and if an artist is not an activist, then he's no artist."
While living in China has been the main source of his troubles and he's been offered a position as professor at Berlin University (Germany would offer him asylum), leaving China isn't an option for him. Ai Weiwei will likely follow the launch of his solo exhibition in Berlin from his studio in Beijing, but the audience abroad will see evidence of his experience, of existing as a common person in China, who simply seeks to freely express his thoughts.
Ai Weiwei's "Evidence" exhibition runs 3 April to 7 July 2014 at Martin-Gropius-Baus, Berlin.
Photos by Alessandro De Toni