Venice, Italy — Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei warns against hubris in a how he calls it “such a difficult time”. .”
Russian bombs fall on Ukraine. China is flexing its military muscles in the Taiwan Straits. Again and again migrants die at sea when smuggler boats sink. The earth is warming, causing droughts, collapsing glaciers and triggering violent storms. The pandemic continues.
“We talk about many, many things. We talk about immigrants, about deaths, about the war, about many, many issues,” Ai told The Associated Press in Venice on Friday.
He stands next to his 9-meter (29.5-foot), nearly 3-tonne black glass sculpture that hangs over the central nave of the deconsecrated church of San Giorgio Maggiore, located across from St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The sculpture, titled “The Human Comedy: Memento Mori,” is the centerpiece of an Ai exhibition at the church that opens on Sunday.
The massive hanging work of art is part chandelier, part ossuary, with intricately suspended sculpted glass skeletons and skulls, both human and animal, balanced with glass-blown human organs and scattered resemblances of the Twitter bird logo and security cameras hinting at the darker side of technology .
“We are seeing the environment completely disappearing, being destroyed by people’s efforts… and that will create a much greater catastrophe or famine. Or war, there is a possible political struggle between China and the West” as China asserts greater control over Hong Kong and threatens control over Taiwan, Ai said.
“We have to think about the human and the legitimacy in the environment. Do we really deserve this planet or are we just so short-sighted and racist? And very, very simply self-demanding, selfish,” the artist added.
The exhibition also features smaller glass sculptures. One shows Ai himself as a prisoner, a nod to his months in a Chinese prison in 2011. Another forces his distorted face onto a replica 18th-century statue titled Allegory of Envy. Sacristy. Colored glass helmets save seats in the choir. Lego portrait replicas of famous paintings and the Chinese zodiac line the walls of adjacent rooms.
Ai said he thinks Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given Chinese authorities a “potential model” for understanding how such an operation might work in Taiwan, without serving as encouragement or warning.
“I think China is part of the global power struggle that reflects our modern understanding and the classic notion of territories and who has the right to do what,” he said. “What is happening in the Russia-Ukraine conflict may give China a clear mental exercise on what they want to do in Taiwan if the need arises.”
But the artist says any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a mistake and a misunderstanding of Taiwan’s history.
“The Chinese think Taiwan belongs to China, but in reality China and Taiwan have been separate for over 70 years. They have their own social structure, which is more democratic and peaceful than China’s,” he said. Any attempt by China to claim Taiwan by force will result in “the ultimate struggle.”
He sees the struggle in China as a struggle over the legitimacy of government control, while the challenge in the West is the constant need to defend democracy and thus freedom of expression. The West’s Achilles’ heel is its economic dependence on China’s cheap manufacturing, he said.
“That’s why China is so confident,” Ai said. “They know that the West cannot live without China.”
He cited instances of Western hypocrisy, including festivals in Europe and the United States rejecting films he made during the pandemic that depict Wuhan’s first lockdown and the fighting in Hong Kong.
Eventually, after praising the films, the festivals “give the final words, we can’t show it,” for fear of losing access to the Chinese market, Ai said.
His artwork travels more smoothly, he said, because his artistic language is harder to interpret.
“My work involves a new vocabulary, so it’s difficult for someone who has no knowledge at all. It needs to be studied,” Ai said. “I don’t do a play to please the audience. But I always want to say something that is necessary.”
Tourists strolling in from the water bus were delighted to have stumbled across an exhibition by the renowned dissident artist.
“It’s metal? When I first saw this, I thought it represented hell,” said Kenneth Cheung, a Hong Kong native who now lives in Toronto, Canada, as he looked at the imposing glass sculpture. “Being in a church is even stronger, more powerful.”
The main sculpture took three years to create with the assistance of artists in a Murano glass studio using three techniques: traditional Murano blown glass, wax molding and injection moulding. Studio owner Adriano Berengo said he followed Ai for years to secure a collaboration with an artist he admires for his strong political beliefs.
“He shows his face. He’s not hiding. He’s willing to risk his life and he did it in China,” Berengo said.
The exhibition runs until November 27 in Venice. From there the hanging sculpture will go to the Design Museum in London and then hopefully to a buyer, Berengo said.
“It must be a big museum. How else can you preserve such a work of art?” he said.