Ai Weiwei Gets Tame for First Chinese Solo Exhibit

Few artists have a career as rich, controversial, and tragic as Ai Weiwei. A native of Beijing, much of his work has been dominated by his incredibly complex relationship to his homeland, one where he has essentially been held captive for the last four years. In light of this fact, it may come as no surprise that the artist has just opened his very first solo exhibit in China, an event that has curiously been delayed until now throughout his more than 30 year career.

The focus of the exhibit is a subject matter fare more opaque than Weiwei’s previous work. The exhibition is self-titled, yet it is mostly comprised of a single work: an ancient Chinese temple that has been split in two. The ancestral hall was meticulously reconstructed in separate spaces within the gallery, rendering it impossible to view in full from any position. In the press release, it states that viewers are intended to challenged by the “totality” of the space, where “the architectural object is deprived of its original use, thus acquiring a new shape and meaning.”

The Chinese press has given the show glowing reviews, a stark contrast to the fiercely critical receptions of his past work. They have celebrated Weiwei for abstaining from any overt political messages in his new work, which under normal circumstances would be heavily censored by the Chinese government. Indeed the artist seemed quite complicit to avoid any issues with the government surrounding the show’s opening, rescheduling the opening without complaint as not to coincide with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest.

Weiwei remained tight-lipped about his feelings on his first opening in his home country, telling the New York Times simply that “It’s surprising…it feels different.” His previously outspoken comments were what got him in trouble with the Chinese government back in 2011, where he was arrested and detained en route to Hong Kong and was incarcerated for upwards of three months. To add insult to injury, the government revoked his passport, forcing the artist to remain on mainland Chinese soil, where he has stayed for the past four years. This has done little to stop his prolific output of work, where he has orchestrated construction of his exhibitions via Skype in locations such as Alcatraz Island and the Venice Biennale.

While many feel that the opening of ‘Ai Weiwei’ marks something of a homecoming for the artist, it retains a bitter flavor for others who see the inherent irony in his inability to leave China. Either way, art fans who find themselves in Beijing are privy to a rare treat; the chance to not only see an Ai Weiwei work but one that he oversaw personally.

‘Ai Weiwei’ is on display at Galleria Continua in Beijing until September 6th

Images of artwork courtesy of Tang Contemporary Art, portrait courtesy of the artist

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