In Beijing, Ai Weiwei is back with a vengeance. The dissident Chinese artist has had four solo shows in the Chinese capital, ending an implicit exhibition ban that had been in place since his arrest in 2011. The fact that the shows, which opened in June, were permitted with minimal interference beyond one amended opening date surprised everyone, including Ai. “I never planned to have a few shows all at once,” Ai tells us. “It has made a lot of people aware that this guy can have a show [in China]. I was not sure it would happen until the [first] opening.”
The presence of plainclothes police at the galleries and Ai’s practice of “announcing [all of] my life, my art, my efforts” on social media kept the authorities apprised of the content, but anxiety was high until the uneventful opening of the first show, titled Ai Weiwei (until 31 December) and held jointly at Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art. The other shows are AB Blood Type (until 9 August) at Magician Space and Tiger, Tiger, Tiger (until 31 August) at Chambers Fine Art; Ai also had a one-day show at the studio of his protégé Zhao Zhao (19 June).
The Beijing exhibitions are the first steps towards resolving Ai’s status, but they stop short of full rehabilitation. “The decision-making process is opaque. I can only speculate that the authorities realise that they have created a situation that, sooner or later, has to be resolved,” says John Tancock, a longtime collaborator of Ai’s and an adviser to Chambers Fine Art.
Ai says that he feels optimistic. “The nation, however oppressive, is working towards a more level society, within the rule of law,” he says. Whether he will be allowed to travel soon remains uncertain. “It is a step closer to getting my passport, but that is not the goal. Without my passport, I am still an artist and I can use the internet to communicate,” he says.
The thaw comes, ironically, as China becomes more cautious in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s campaigns against corruption and demands for “cultural correctness”. Privately owned Chinese media can now mention Ai online, but in print, a de-facto blackout largely remains, although it is inconsistently enforced. The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, ran two editorials on Ai’s return, calling it a new opportunity for the artist to eschew politics for more public-pleasing art.
The Continua/Tang show, which features a reconstruction of a Ming Dynasty ancestral shrine, is proving popular. First planned two years ago to mark Continua’s ten-year anniversary in China, the authorities requested that the opening be moved from late May to 6 June to avoid overlapping with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June. That proved the sole interference, says Federica Beltrame, Continua’s director. “Once we were doing this [show], with no objection from the authorities, other galleries came to me,” Ai says.
Magician Space in the 798 Art District opened AB Blood Type two days later, followed by Tiger, Tiger, Tiger at Chambers Fine Art, in the Caochangdi art compound that houses Ai’s studio. Ai says: “Magician is a small, local space with integrity. [My shows] do not all have to be on a grand scale. They can even be invisible, or a show of taking down a show, like at UCCA, generating discussion.”
Ai was referring to the controversy that arose last year after Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) excised his name from a press release for Hans van Dijk: 5,000 Names, a tribute to the late Dutch curator with whom Ai co-founded the China Art Archives and Warehouse in 1997. Publishing recordings of conversations in which Xue Mei, UCCA’s chief executive, admitted that the omission was to placate the government, Ai withdrew his works in protest. Shortly before this, Ai’s name and work were removed at the last minute by museum officials from the China Contemporary Art Awards retrospective at Shanghai’s state-owned Power Station of Art. In February 2011, UCCA postponed, then cancelled, a solo show planned for that March.
Official discomfort with Ai’s prolific use of social media, as well as his art, to champion internet freedom and to mourn the death of 5,205 schoolchildren in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake culminated in his arrest on 3 April 2011. Released 81 days later, he was fined $2.4m for alleged tax evasion and his passport is still being withheld. “It’s four years since my release, but my status has never been normalised,” he says. “My name could not be searched on the internet: the articles about me were pure fabrications, dirty things, which were not pleasant to read.”
Ai’s confinement to China coincided with a proliferation of high-profile exhibitions abroad, including shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and Alcatraz. Even before his detention, Ai’s exhibitions were internationally focused, and his only recent solo shows in China were at Beijing’s Faurschou Gallery in 2009 and Galerie Urs Meile in 2006.
Ai has always been something of a divisive figure within China. “There is always a lot of sniping surrounding Ai,” says Lee Ambrozy, an art historian who co-wrote Ai’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006-09. “In artistic circles, many have rejected Ai and his work, or cultivated surprisingly hostile opinions of his interactions with the ‘West’,” she says. “Artists have separated into polarised thought camps, often maintaining deeply emotional opinions on what is the ‘right’ way to deal with the authorities and their own limits of ‘freedom of speech’, which many don’t feel is an issue relevant to their work.”
Likewise, many Chinese galleries were reluctant to work with Ai long before his arrest, and the fear of encountering official difficulties only deepened after his detention. “A lot of Chinese galleries did not want to get involved,” observes Qu Kejie, the artist-founder of Magician Space.
The return of China’s most famous artist to the country’s local galleries is significant: Ai’s work takes on different meanings in a Chinese context. “It is good to show in my own country,” Ai says. “I can face the criticisms of artists and other people here. It brings back a piece of the puzzle of reality.”
“In China, obviously it means a great deal more than it does abroad,” John Tancock says. “Critics of Ai Weiwei within China—and there are many of them, not least within the art world—have always claimed that he creates works for the Western market by choice, but that is an entirely wrong reading of the situation.” Now, the public have a chance to see the work for themselves. The current shows, referring to Chinese history and society, “have an entirely different resonance than they would have outside China, an added dimension that Ai undoubtedly appreciates”, Tancock says.
It also means a great deal to Ai’s admirers in China. “Chinese people have come [to the show] and are very enthusiastic,” Beltrame says. “I thought that Ai did not have supporters here, that he was seen as a person making trouble”, but instead, “there were 2,000 people at the opening—the most visitors we’ve [ever] had”.
Although Ai has yet to be fully rehabilitated in China, a precedent exists. Many of the country’s leading cultural figures have re-emerged after years of being banned, such as the film-maker Zhang Yimou, the rock star Cui Jian and Ai’s own father, Ai Qing. Now it remains to be seen if Ai will be allowed to travel to London in September for his next major show, at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Correction: Ai Weiwei was fined $2.4m not $12.4 as originally stated
Will Ai be able to visit the Royal Academy?
Ai Weiwei, who is an honorary Royal Academician, tells us that he was surprised and delighted to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 2011. “It is a very British sort of humour to accept me as a member of the Academy, since I did not even graduate from undergrad,” he says. “I like their humour—it is the humour that penetrates.” Christopher Le Brun, the institution’s president, says: “One day the Royal Academy hopes to welcome this important artist and honorary Academician to London.” Meanwhile, in Beijing, Ai is creating works and planning his solo show with the London institution’s galleries and courtyard in mind. The show, which is due to open on 19 September (until 13 December), is co-organised by the curator Adrian Locke and Tim Marlow, the institution’s director of artistic programmes.
The artist in his Beijing studio. © Harry Pearce, Pentagram, 2015