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Ai Weiwei Exhibit Shines Light On Time As Political Prisoner

One of Ai Weiwei's dioramas shows guards leading him into his small cell where he spent 81 days in solitary confinement.
Domenico Stinellis
One of Ai Weiwei's dioramas shows guards leading him into his small cell where he spent 81 days in solitary confinement.

Chinese dissident artist and architect Ai Weiwei is an outspoken critic of China's record on human rights. This year, Beijing prevented him from traveling to Venice for the first exhibition of a deeply autobiographical work. His most recent installation is an excruciatingly detailed depiction of the period he was held in solitary detention.

In a quiet corner close to a canal, Sant'Antonin is a typical 17th century Venetian church. But inside, the contrast between the paintings of old masters and the contemporary exhibit is stark.

Under a baroque fresco of heaven, the pews have been replaced by six steel boxes, 5 feet high, 6 feet wide and 12 feet long.

Viewers must step on a block and, peering through a small slit on top of the box, they see lifelike dioramas of Ai Weiwei as a political prisoner inside a padded prison cell, always under double guard.

"You can see inside, each detail, each little thing, each bottle, everything is exactly how was the prison where he was closed, and he remember everything so clearly," says Manuela Astore, who helped organize the exhibit.

Outraged by the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed more than 5,000 children as schools buildings collapsed, Ai Weiwei spoke out and denounced shoddy construction practices and corruption as the cause of the deaths.

His activism angered Chinese authorities, and he was arrested for alleged tax evasion and held in solitary detention for 81 days.

Once released, he decided to expose the authorities' methods by recreating his traumatic experience in painstaking detail.

"I memorized every crack in the ceiling, every mark on the wall. I'm an artist and architect, so I have a good memory for these things," Ai told a reporter.

The completed work was installed in Venice by four technicians from the artist's studio. Inside the claustrophobic boxes, the fiberglass Ai Weiwei and his guards are shrunk to three-quarter size.

In one, the viewer sees Ai Weiwei sitting at a table and eating, two guards watching over him, practically touching him, observing his every movement. The daily humiliations of cell block routines include intimate scenes of the prisoner using the bathroom and taking a shower naked while two fully-dressed guards observe him from close proximity.

It's a stark dramatization of the imbalance of power. The guards themselves were ordered never to speak with the prisoner.

Manuela Astore says the surveillance was obsessive. "Even though he has never been tortured by the guards, only the fact that he was never left alone, it was torture by itself," she says.

One of the most powerful scenes illustrates the prisoner's physical vulnerability.

Looking down, the viewer sees Ai Weiwei covered by a blanket, lying flat on his back, with two guards standing just a few inches away from the cot and guarding him all night long as he sleeps.

Excellently crafted, the dioramas provide a sense of dislocation and self-doubt; Ai has said he felt that any moment could have been his last.

The church setting for the exhibit is also quite apt. The title of the installation is S.A.C.R.E.D.

The work, Astore says, suggests the Stations of the Cross. "This work, [S.A.C.R.E.D.], is like a Via Crucis; his passion [is] like Jesus Christ with his cross on his shoulder," she says.

Under the guards' constant watch, the artist developed a heightened sense of perception that enabled him to create a hyper-real installation.

And particularly poignant, at a time of increased global concern over governments' secret monitoring of citizens' lives. Ai has turned the situation around, allowing individual viewer to watch the guards.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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