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NEW YORK DAYS
Archive photographs
Academic essay by Clelia Guareschi
Hanging Man, 1983 Violin, 1985 Safe Sex, 1987

01
COLORED VASES
Coca-Cola Meets China: Ai Weiwei’s Subversive Symb [...]
Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo, 1993 Coloured [...]

02
STUDY OF PERSPECTIVE
Amerika, The Man Who Disappeared, 1927, by Franz Kaf [...]
Study of Perspective series, 1995-2003

03
258 FAKE
Internet forum discussion on 258 FAKE, Language Log

04
SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE
Little Girl's Cheeks, 2009
Straight, 2015
Remembering, 2009
A Forest of Names — the translation of one grief t [...]

05
STUDENT'S NAMES
Sichuan Earthquake
Website archive of the Citizens’ Investigation
Ai Weiwei on the project that awoke his political vo [...]

06
SO SORRY
So Sorry, 2012 (Documentary)

07
CRABS AND MERMAIDS
The Crab House, 2011 (full documentary)
Virtual guide of the Danish Pavilion at the Shangha [...]

08
SUNFLOWER SEEDS
Ai Weiwei's exhibition Sunflower Seeds at Tate
Art, Activism and the Geopolitical Imagination: Ai W [...]
Louise Camu, "Revisiting: KUI HUA ZI", 9th Oct

09
S.A.C.R.E.D
Ai Weiwei's S.A.C.R.E.D on the BBC's Culture Show, 2 [...]
Dumbass, 2013, music video
Charlie Colville, "CIRCA 2020 x Ai Weiwei: Recapturi [...]

10
SURVEILLANCE
Disturbing the Peace
Ai Weiwei's song Chaoyang Park, 2007
Surveillance - Reading List
Chaoyang Park, 2013 — Bugs, 2015

11
WITH FLOWERS
With Flowers, 2013 - 2015 — Bicycle Basket with Fl [...]

12
LEG GUN
Leg Gun, 2014

13
YOURS TRULY
Yours Truly, 2019, (postcards)
Yours Truly, 2019, (Documentary)
Refraction, 2014
With Wind, 2014

14
PUBLIC ART
Seven monumental public artworks
Charlie Colville, "CIRCA 2020 x Ai Weiwei: Criticisi [...]

15
SELFIES
Ai Weiwei's 20 Best Selfies

16
BERLIN
The Refugee Affect: Ai Weiwei in Berlin - Europe Now [...]
Berlin, I Love You - MUBI
Gertrude Gibbons, "Flow of Quotation", 17th Oct

17
AT SEA
At Sea, 2016
Ai Weiwei Discusses His Documentary, 'Human Flow'
Human Flow, 2016 (documentary)
International Rescue Commitee
DONATE

18
LAZIZ
Laziz, 2016
Four Paws Charity
Yehuda Amichai, “Six Songs for Tamar”

19
ROHINGYA
United Nations: Rohingya Refugee Crisis
UN Crisis Relief: Donate

20
ODYSSEY
Odyssey: A project by Ai Weiwei for Palermo
The Odyssey, Homer, 1880

21
LAW OF THE JOURNEY
"Opening A Certain Poetic Space": What Can Art Do fo [...]
Human Flow: Thinking with and through Ai Weiwei’s [...]
Charlie Colville, "CIRCA 2020 x Ai Weiwei: Investiga [...]

22
43
FT, "Who's afraid of Ai Weiwei? The Chinese dissiden [...]
Vivos Trailer
Ai Weiwei interview on Vivos - The Hollywood Reporte [...]
Vivos, 2019

23
ANIMALITY
Animality - Reading List
Stephanie Gavan, "Animality", 24 Oct

24
BIG TREE
Ai Qing, Chinese poet (1910 - 1986)

25
COCKROACH

26
CORONATION

27
MASK

28
LITTLE BOY

29
MOUNTAINS AND SEAS

30

31
READ THE ARTICLE
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ANIMALITY 

By Stephanie Gavan

24th October, 2020

I’m thinking about animals, about Ai Weiwei and his cats. I’m thinking of the 40 feline creatures that populate his Beijing compound, how it must feel to have your daily life surveilled by 80 prying eyes. In doing so I’m reminded of another cat, Logos, the siamese pet of Jacques Derrida, and the now famous encounter that took place between them. When emerging from the shower one morning, Derrida found himself disarmed by the fixed gaze of the cat upon his body. Caught off guard, not only by Logos the cat, but by the unexpected shame of his nudity before this animal who looks on ‘just to see’.1 What is it to be seen by one’s cat, or by any animal? Encounters like these disturb our complacency about what it is to be human, they invite us to consider not so much what we know about animals, but what they force us to acknowledge about ourselves, that which we ignore. When the animal looks back, we are exposed. In it’s bottomless gaze; a call, a cry, a plea for a response.

BACK TO CALENDAR
NEW YORK DAYS
PLAY

NEW YORK DAYS focuses on the formative decade Ai Weiwei spent in New York City. The video consists of photographs, artworks, and footage created by Ai during this period.
We see Ai, a young artist who first came to the city a painter, drawn to the art and the issues that would define him decades later—the ideas of Duchamp and Warhol, movements for social justice, and a photojournalistic streak. NEW YORK DAYS includes the earliest footage Ai has filmed, including an anti-war protest.

Video edited by:
Li Dongxu

Quotes:
I loved New York—every inch of it. It was like a monster.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

When I order in a restaurant, I order everything that I don’t want.
- Andy Warhol, American artist (1928 - 1987)

What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
- Allen Ginsberg, American poet (1926 - 1997)

All of life is a foreign country.
- Jack Kerouac, American writer (1922 - 1969)

Artworks:
Hanging Man, 1983
Violin, 1985
Safe Sex, 1987
Allen Ginsberg’s Birthday, 1990

New York Photographs, 1983 - 1993
COLORED VASES
PLAY

COLORED VASES presents a snapshot of Ai Weiwei’s art and activity during the two decades he spent in Beijing after returning from New York in 1993. Following the upheaval of the student demonstrations in 1989, Beijing had become a rapidly developing megapolis. Ai’s brother, Ai Dan, introduced him to the city’s antique markets, where he became a connoisseur of jade, porcelain, and furniture. Combined with the conceptual vocabulary he picked up as a student in the West, Ai developed his own aesthetic language. He declared, “Tradition is only a ready- made” expanding the Duchampian idea to a culture and, later, a political system.

Video edited by:
Li Dongxu

Quotes:
Tradition is only a readymade.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher (1929 – 1947)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artworks:
Beijing Photographs, 1993-2003
Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo, 1993
Seven Frames, 1994
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Breaking of Two Blue and White Dragon Bowls, 1995
Coca-Cola Vase, 1995
Table with Two Legs on the Wall, 1997
Still Life, 1993-2000
Whitewash, 1995-2000
Colored Vases, 2003
Bench, 2004
Chang’an Boulevard, 2004
Beijing: the Second Ring, 2005
Beijing: the Third Ring, 2005
Fragments, 2005
Bang, 2013

Beijing Photographs 1993-2003
STUDY OF PERSPECTIVE
PLAY

STUDY OF PERSPECTIVE is a series of photographs first initiated in 1995. The photographs depict Ai Weiwei’s arm extended with the middle finger raised toward sites of cultural and politi- cal power around the world, such as the Eiffel Tower, the White House, and the Reichstag. The latest addition to this series is a photograph taken outside of Trump Tower, Manhattan, in 2016.

Video edited by:

Li Dongxu

Quotes:
My favorite word? It’s ‘act.’
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artworks:
Study of Perspective, 1995-2016

Study of Perspective series, 1995-2003
258 FAKE
PLAY

258 FAKE is a series of photographs and videos centering on two elements of Ai Weiwei’s studio activity in Beijing: pets and haircuts. Over the years, Ai’s studio has been home to over forty cats. One of Ai’s favorite studio activities is the haircut, presented as a collection of straight lines, extreme angles, spirals, and negative space.

Video edited by:
Li Dongxu

Quotes:
Freedom is a god-given right. No matter if you are rich or poor, intelligent or not, it belongs to you, and no one can touch it.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

History is always the missing part of the puzzle in everything we do.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artwork:
258 Fake, 2011

“[Photography] . . . is similar to the seemingly truthful—but actually false—state of various kinds of ‘knowledge,’” Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei wrote in 2003. “No matter whether or not we are convinced of the information that is presented to us, every bit of it is useless in allaying our doubts.”

That tension between fact and fiction, particularly inherent in 21st-century digital photography, is at the heart of Ai’s 258 Fake, a 2011 work the Harvard Art Museums recently acquired. The installation consists of 12 monitors that display a total of 7,677 digital photographs—most of which were created with smartphones—arranged thematically.

Viewers are confronted with an array of snapshots, from the inane to the deadly serious: the artist giving another man a bowl cut (using an actual bowl), a wide-eyed cat, a plate of food, rubble from Sichuan’s devastating 2008 earthquake. The sheer number and quick rotation of images—each monitor changes every four seconds—reflect both the immediacy and the transience of experiences in the age of digital photography and social media.

Ai created the images between 2003 and 2011 and originally published them on his popular blog. (Chinese authorities shut down the blog in 2011, the same year Ai was arrested on charges of “economic crimes” and detained for 81 days.) […] The work’s title, a nod to the name and address of Ai’s FAKE Design studio in Beijing and a cheeky play on words (the Chinese pronunciation of “fake” is similar to a certain four-letter word in English), also elicits the rhetorical question: if the focus of this work is the “fake,” then what is real?

Pets + Haircuts
SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE
PLAY

SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE consists of artwork, photographs, and video related to Ai Weiwei’s activities surrounding the Citizens’ Investigation into the student deaths resulting from the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. A structural element of the investigation was Ai’s documentary film “Little Girl’s Cheeks,” which included interviews with the parents of the student victims. In 2009, Ai had his first major solo exhibition in Germany at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He created “Remembering,” an installation of colorful student backpacks hung on the museum’s facade that spelled out the words of one grieving mother: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” Ai also collected the mangled rebar from the collapsed school buildings and had them meticulously straightened in a work titled “Straight.”

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quotes:
If you seek to understand your motherland, you are already on the road to becoming a criminal.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Zuoxiao Zuzhou, “⼀一顆⼼心 雲的南⽅方”


Artworks:
Little Girl’s Cheeks, 2009
Remembering, 2009
Straight, 2008-2012

“Citizens aren’t soft persimmons, and who you offend today may not be so easy to push around tomorrow. Don’t take and eat, and then turn around and feign ignorance.”

Ai Weiwei May 27th, 2009

Little Girl's Cheeks, 2009 (full documentary)

On December 15, 2008, a citizens’ investigationn began with the goal of seeking an explanation for the casualties of the Sichuan earthquake that happened on May 12, 2008. The investigation covered 14 counties and 74 townships within the disaster zone, and studied the conditions of 153 schools that were affected by the earthquake. By gathering and confirming comprehensive details about the students, such as their age, region, school, and grade, the group managed to affirm that there were 5,192 students who perished in the disaster. Among a hundred volunteers, 38 of them participated in fieldwork, with 25 of them being controlled by the Sichuan police for a total of 45 times. This documentary is a structural element of the citizens’ investigation.

Straight, 2015, short film about the work.
Straight, 2008-2012

In Straight , Ai uses rebar recovered from the rubble of collapsed schoolhouses in Sichuan following the 2008 earthquake. The artist had every piece of mangled rebar straightened through a laborious process. The large divide in the piece is reminiscent of both a ground fissure and of a gulf between values. This massive work serves as a reminder of the repercussions of the earthquake and expresses the artist’s concern over society’s ability to start afresh “almost as if nothing had happened.”

Remembering, 2009

For his exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Ai designed a new work for the outer facade of the museum. The installation, titled Remembering, consisted of over 9,000 colored, student backpacks. The backpacks spelled out a quote in Chinese characters. The qoute read, “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” This quote was from a mother whose daughter died in the earthquake.

STUDENT'S NAMES
PLAY

STUDENTS’ NAMES is a work depicting the names of the student victims discovered in Ai Wei- wei’s Citizens’ Investigation. Facing a lack of transparency from the Chinese authorities over who perished in the shoddily built school buildings, Ai initiated a Citizen’s Investigation to uncover the names of all the students that lost their lives. Ai and his team of volunteers identified 5,126 student victims.

Video edited by:
Li Dongxu

Quotes:
In the death of a student, I saw the death of society.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Zuoxiao Zuzhou, “5.12遇難學⽣生名錄錄”

Artwork:
Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, 2008-2011
 Little Girl’s Cheeks, 2009

On May 12th, 2008 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck in China’s south-western Sichuan province. More than 10’000 people were believed to be dead, school buildings had collapsed due to shoddy construction. When the Chinese government failed to release the number and names of students that perished, the lack of transparency was suspicious. Ai Weiwei organized the Citizens’ Investigation, which was comprised of a hundred volunteers whose purpose was to account for and seek an explanation for the total number of student casualties. 5’196 students were identified during the three year long investigation, which covered 14 counties, 74 townships and studied the conditions of 153 schools affected by the earthquake.

This wallpaper shows the result of the investigation, including details about the students, such as their age, region, school, and grade.

SO SORRY
PLAY

SO SORRY is a work about an individual’s direct confrontation with a police state and his attempt to hold the system to account. In 2009, Ai Weiwei traveled to Chengdu, Sichuan province, to testify in court on behalf of Tan Zuoren, an activist involved with investigating the questionable circumstances surrounding the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake. Tan stood accused of “subversion of state power.” On the eve of the trial, police broke into Ai’s hotel room and he was beat on the head during the altercation. One month later, Ai traveled to Munich to install an exhibition at the Haus der Kunst. Ai was rushed to emergency care where he underwent surgery for a brain haemorrhage resulting from the earlier beating.

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quote:
They have to have an enemy.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Ai Weiwei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou, “Laoma Tihua” from The Divine Comedy, 2013

Artworks:
So Sorry, 2009

Ai Weiwei, So Sorry, 2012 (Documentary)
Ai Weiwei, So Sorry, 2009

As a sequel to Ai Weiwei’s film Lao Ma Ti Hua, the film So Sorry (named after the artist’s 2009 exhibition in Munich, Germany) shows the beginnings of the tension between Ai Weiwei and the Chinese Government.  In Lao Ma Ti Hua, Ai Weiwei travels to Chengdu, China to attend the trial of the civil rights advocate Tan Zuoren, as a witness.  In So Sorry, you see the investigation led by Ai Weiwei studio to identify the students who died during the Sichuan earthquake as a result of corruption and poor building constructions leading to the confrontation between Ai Weiwei and the Chengdu police.  After being beaten by the police, Ai Weiwei traveled to Munich, Germany to prepare his exhibition at the museum, Haus der Kunst.  The result of his beating led to intense headaches caused by a brain hemorrhage and was treated by emergency surgery.  These events mark the beginning of Ai Weiwei’s struggle and surveillance at the hands of the state police.

CRABS AND MERMAIDS
PLAY

CRABS AND MERMAIDS juxtaposes two events related to Ai Weiwei’s practice in China. CRABS references “The Crab House,” a documentary Ai Weiwei produced about the forced demolition of his Shanghai studio by the Chinese authorities in 2011. Ai’s Zuoyou studio in Beijing was later also demolished in 2018. “Crab,” or he xie, is a homonym for “harmonious,” a euphemism for state censorship. MERMAIDS references an early work on the issue of surveillance, titled “Mermaid Exchange.” During the Shanghai EXPO in 2010, the Danish government relocated its famous statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen to its pavilion in Shanghai. In its place, Ai installed a screen that broadcast a livestream video of the statue in the Danish pavilion.

Video edited by:
Gui Nuo

Quote:
It takes an enemy to make me a soldier. If I don’t have a great monster to fight, who am I?
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Punkgod
Jens Bjørnkjær

Artworks:
Mermaid Exchange, 2009
The Crab House, 2015

The Crab House, 2011 (full documentary)
The Crab House, 2015

Early in 2008, the district government of Jiading, Shanghai invited Ai Weiwei to build a studio in Malu Township, as a part of the local government’s efforts in developing its cultural assets. By August 2010, the Ai Weiwei Shanghai Studio completed all of its construction work. In October 2010, the Shanghai government declared the Ai Weiwei Shanghai Studio an illegal construction, and was subjected to demolition. On November 7, 2010, when Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest by public security in Beijing, over 1,000 netizens attended the “River Crab Feast” at the Shanghai Studio. On January 11, 2011, the Shanghai city government forcibly demolished the Ai Weiwei Studio within a day, without any prior notice.

Little Mermaid, 2008 - 2011
SUNFLOWER SEEDS
PLAY

In 2010, Ai Weiwei was commissioned by the Tate Modern to present an artwork in its iconic Turbine Hall. Ai exhibited “Sunflower Seeds,” an installation consisting of 100 million porcelain seeds. Each seed was individually hand-painted and fired by artisans from Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China.

Video edited by:
Li Dongxu

Quotes:
I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artworks:
Sunflower Seeds, 2010

Sunflower Seeds, 2010, Tate Modern

Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain. 

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

Revisiting: KUI HUA ZI

by Louise Camu

9th OCTOBER 2010

It’s a grizzly overcast afternoon and the pale October light filters through the thin vertical windows at the end of the hall, lending the installation a solemn and melancholy air. As I approach, the homogenous grey carpet begins to take form; I move closer still. 

EXPAND
S.A.C.R.E.D
PLAY

On April 3, 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested at the Beijing Capital International Airport. A black hood was placed over his head and he was transported to an unknown location. His next 81- days were spent in secret detention, with around the clock monitoring by military police and constant interrogations. S.A.C.R.E.D. is a work that reflects upon this period of imprisonment. The work uses material from Ai’s music video “Dumbass,” a surrealist but exact recreation of Ai’s confinement. In another clip, Ai’s mother, Gao Ying, visits the Venice Biennale in 2013 where Ai exhibited a scale diorama that replicated six daily scenes from detention.

Video edited by:
Gui Nuo

Quote:I became the ultimate enemy of the established power

Without a crime.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Ai Weiwei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou, “Dumbass” from The Divine Comedy, 2013

Artworks:
S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013
Dumbass, 2013

Dumbass, 2013, music video
S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013

In 2011, Chinese authorities imprisoned Ai Weiwei for 81 days in a secret location without ling any o cial charges against him. During his period of imprisonment, Ai was constantly interrogated and put under twenty-four hour surveil- lance, accompanied by two guards who never left his side even when he used the toilet or went to sleep.nIn S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-2013), Ai created his tetention in a six-part work, made from breglass and encased in iron. Each of the letters in S.A.C.R.E.D. stands for a di erent episode of his experience: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy and Doubt.

CIRCA 2020 x Ai Weiwei: Recapturing the Tragedy and Corruption Surrounding the Sichuan Earthquake

by Charlie Colville

10th October 2020

As we enter the last quarter of 2020, a new platform for the creation and exhibition of digital art was launched in the heart of Piccadilly Circus. Known as CIRCA, the platform allows for artists to showcase their work and ideas in the form of a two-minute video on the Piccadilly Lights, one of London’s most famous landmarks.  

EXPAND
SURVEILLANCE
PLAY

SURVEILLANCE is a work about one individual’s struggle against an authoritarian state intent on silencing and intimidating dissidents. After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai Weiwei initiat- ed a Citizens’ Investigation to uncover the identities of the students that died as a result of collapsed school buildings. Due to this involvement, Ai became a target of state surveillance and harassment. These episodes are captured in Ai’s documentary films “Disturbing the Peace,” “So Sorry,” and in the music video “Chaoyang Park.” In 2011, Ai is arrested and placed in secret detention for 81 days. His studio in Caochangdi was also raided by the police. Documents and computers were seized, several colleagues were arrested and questioned. In 2015, during a renovation of the studio, Ai discovered that several listening devices had been installed in his home and office.

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quotes:
Freedom is not an absolute condition, but a result of resistance.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Ai Weiwei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou, “Chaoyang Park” from The Divine Comedy, 2013

Artworks:
Disturbing the Peace, 2009
So Sorry, 2012
Chaoyang Park, 2013
Bugs, 2015

Disturbing the Peace, Documentary, 2012
Disturbing the Peace, 2009

Ai Weiwei studio production “LAO MA TI HUA” is a documentary of an incident during Tan Zuoren’s trial on August 12, 2009. Tan Zuoren was charged with “inciting subversion of state power”. Chengdu police detained witnessed during the trial of the civil rights advocate, which is an obstruction of justice and violence.

Tan Zuoren was charged as a result of his research and questioning regarding the 5.12 Wenchuan students’ casualties and the corruption resulting poor building construction. Tan Zuoren was sentenced five years to prison.

WITH FLOWERS
PLAY

Beginning on November 3, 2013, Ai Weiwei placed a bouquet of flowers in the bicycle basket outside of his studio. He took a picture and posted it on his social media. He vowed to continue this action each day until the Chinese authorities returned his passport. WITH FLOWERS lasted 600 days, concluding on July 22, 2015.

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quotes:
I want people to see their own power.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

You can cut all the flowers but you cannot prevent Spring from coming.
- Pablo Neruda (Chilean poet, 1904 - 1973)

Music Credit:
Xiao He, “Ai Weiwei”

Artworks:
With Flowers, 2013-2015
Bicycle Basket with Flowers, 2014
Blossom, 2014
Free Speech Puzzle, 2014
Flower Plate, 2014

LEG GUN
PLAY

In 2014, Ai Weiwei posted a selfie of his leg outstretched, aimed like a rifle at a target, on social media. Immediately, others began to post their own variations of the pose and the “leg gun” went viral. Speculation about the meme abounded, some insisted it was an image raising awareness about gun violence, others noticed the parallel to the Chinese ballet “The Red Detachment of Women.” In an interview, Ai asserted that power was often used in the name of security, but that power was questionable.

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quotes:
Body as weapon
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Music from the film “The Red Detachment of Women,” 1960

Artwork:
Leg Gun, 2014

Leg Gun, 2014

In 2014, Ai Weiwei posted on Instagram a selfie of his leg outstretched, aimed like a rifle at a target. Immediately, other individuals began to post their own variations of the pose. Within days, the ‘leg gun’ as it came to be known went viral. Speculation about the meme abounded, some insisted it was an image raising awareness of gun violence, others noticed the parallel to the Chinese ballet “The Red Detachment of Women.” In an interview with the Associated Press, Ai alluded to the fact that power was often exerted in the name of security, but that power was questionable.

YOURS TRULY
PLAY

YOURS TRULY centers on Ai Weiwei’s 2014 exhibition at the former US federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, @Large, initiated by Cheryl Haines and For-Site Foundation. The exhibition was focused on the issue of political prisoners, those who have been detained and imprisoned for their beliefs and convictions. "Trace,” 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience assembled with LEGO bricks, was installed in the prison’s garment factory. The exhibition also included “With Wind,” a sculpture in the form of a dragon crafted using ancient kite-making techniques, and “Refraction,” an installation in the shape of a bird’s wing, made from solar cooker panels commonly found in Tibet. The title YOURS TRULY is taken from a letter writing campaign included as part of the exhibition, where visitors could write to political prisoners from around the world on postcards designed by the artist.

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quotes:
Every one of us is a potential convict.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artworks:
Trace, 2014
With Wind, 2014
Refraction, 2014
Wanted, 2014

Yours Truly, 2019, (postcards)
Yours Truly, 2019, (documentary)
Refraction, 2014
With Wind, 2014
PUBLIC ART
PLAY

PUBLIC ART presents Ai Weiwei’s large-scale, public installations exhibited across the world.

Quotes:
I think of every attempt I make as a wish to open a door.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Video edited by:
Gui Nuo

Music Credit:
Jens Bjørnkjær

Artworks:
Circle of Animals, 2009-2010
Iron Tree, 2009
Forever Bicycles, 2012
Tree, 2015
Gilded Cage, 2017
Arch, 2017
Circle Fence, 2017

Public Art

CIRCA 2020 x Ai Weiwei: Observations on Power and Surveillance

By Charlie Colville

15th October, 2020

As we enter the last quarter of 2020, a new platform for the creation and exhibition of digital art was launched in the heart of Piccadilly Circus. Known as CIRCA, the platform allows for artists to showcase their work and ideas in the form of a two-minute video on the Piccadilly Lights, one of London’s most famous landmarks.  

EXPAND
SELFIES
PLAY

SELFIES consists of hundreds of self-portraits Ai Weiwei has taken and shared on social media since he opened his @aiww Instagram account in 2013. In 2005, Ai was introduced to blogging on the sina.com platform. After the Chinese authorities shut down his page, he began posting on twitter and later on Instagram. Today, his Instagram account has over 584,000 followers. Ai’s online and social media activity is an integral part of his practice..

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quotes:
Fight for freedom. Forget about art.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Ai Weiwei, “Learn to Sing the Song of Caonima”

Artworks:
Selfies, 2013-2020

BERLIN
PLAY

When Ai Weiwei was still living under soft detention in Beijing, he remotely directed a short film for the anthology film “Berlin, I Love You.” The film was written with Ai’s partner Wang Fen and starred their son Ai Lao, both of whom had by then relocated to the German capital. In 2019, Ai discovered that his segment was removed and accused the film’s Western producers of collaborating with Chinese censorship. Two of the film’s producers confirmed Ai’s account. Claus Clausen said, “We underestimated the power of China.” BERLIN is the first time segments from the still-unreleased short film have been publicly exhibited.

Video edited by:
Ma Yan

Quotes:
Freedom of speech is the right from which all others flow.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Artworks:
Berlin, I Love You short film, 2015
Ai Weiwei: Censored opening sequence, 2020

Flow of Quotation

By Gertrude Gibbons

17th October, 2020

Quotes flow through these thirty video works by Ai Weiwei as a consistency, forming a narrative through the fragments of film. At times the words repeated are his own; at times they are echoes of other voices from the past including his father, the poet Ai Qing. The quotations appear across the images, at varying stages, alternately contrasting or merging with the colours and motion of the background. 

EXPAND
AT SEA
PLAY

AT SEA consists of footage filmed by Ai Weiwei during the making of “Human Flow” in 2016. Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees have attempted the dangerous sea journey trying to reach Europe. Alongside these scenes are shots of physical barriers erected across Europe, the cold response to the plea for safety and shelter from the world’s most vulnerable.

Video edited by:
Autumn Rin

Quotes:
The border is not in Lesbos, it is in our minds and in our hearts.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Karsten Fundal

At Sea, 2016
LAZIZ
PLAY

LAZIZ is about the physical and political barriers humans have created. In May 2016, Ai Weiwei and his team traveled to Gaza during the filming of “Human Flow” and visited the Khan Younis zoo, rated “the world’s worst zoo” by animal welfare groups. At the time, only 15 starved and neglected animals remained. Laziz, a ten-year-old male Bengal tiger, was the last tiger in the Gaza strip. Laziz was eventually relocated to an animal sanctuary in South Africa, due to the efforts of Four Paws International. In LAZIZ, we see the tiger frantically circle his cage alongside scenes of Palestinian men and women waiting between the steel bars of the checkpoints separating Israel and Palestine.

Video edited by:
Autumn Rin

Quotes:
I am a cage in search of a bird.
- Franz Kafka, Austrian novelist (1883 - 1924)


Artworks:
Laziz, 2016

My eyes want to stream to each other

like two neighbor lakes.

 

To tell each other

all they have seen.

 

My blood has many relatives–

they never visit.

 

But when they die

my blood inherits.

 

—Yehuda Amichai,

“Six Songs for Tamar”

Laziz, 2016

Laziz is the name of a ten-year- old male Bengal tiger. He was smuggled through a tunnel
that connects Egypt with Gaza as one of the first animals obtained by the Khan Younis
Zoo in Gaza in 2007. The zoo was situated next to an amusement park and over time
accumulated hundreds of animals including primates, lions, emus, pelicans and many
more.

During military conflicts between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas government in 2009 and
again in 2014 several animals were reported to have died, mostly of starvation. In 2015
more than 50 of the deceased animals were taxidermied by the zoo staff and were put
on display in the enclosures to attract more visitors to the otherwise deserted zoo.
Images of these mummified animals earned the park the reputation of “the world’s
worst zoo” by animal welfare groups and international media.

In May 2016 Ai Weiwei and his team came to Gaza for a documentary film project about
refugees and during their stay they also visited the Khan Younis Zoo. By then only 15 of
the previous hundreds of animals were still alive, most cages appeared deserted and the
animals starving. All other cats, including Laziz’ mate, had died and felines from other
Gaza zoos had already been rescued – Laziz remained the last tiger in the Gaza strip.

In August 2016 the animal welfare organization Four Paws International started a long
prepared rescue mission for the remaining animals of Khan Younis. The zoo was closed
and all animals were taken out of Gaza and brought to animal sanctuaries in neighboring
Jordan and Israel. Only Laziz was transferred by plane to the Lion’s Rock Big Cat
Sanctuary in South Africa on August 25 th , where he is now living on a large grassy
enclosure that supports his natural behavior.

The video shows Laziz in a temporary enclosure at the Khan Younis Zoo in June 2016,
two months before his rescue.

We would like to thank the following: Wang Fen, Chin Chin Yap, Abubakr Bashir, Khaled
Alashqar, Nadine Stenke and the team of Four Paws International.

ROHINGYA
PLAY

ROHINGYA is a work depicting the Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It is the largest refugee camp in the world, where over 1 million refugees reside after being forced out from Myanmar. ROHINGYA uses material from a related documentary work.

Video edited by:
Ma Yan

Quotes:
I’m a human in the universe, denied the most basic rights.
 I’m someone I’m afraid of.
- Zaki Ovais, Rohingya poet

Music Credit:
Su Cong

Artworks:
Rohingya, 2020

Rohingya
ODYSSEY
PLAY

ODYSSEY depicts the journey undertaken by refugees fleeing their homelands. This flight is shown in a series of animated scenes: fleeing bombardment, trekking across inhospitable terrain, attempting treacherous sea crossings. Alongside these animations are portraits of contemporary and historical refugees, each one displaced from their homes and seeking safety and shelter elsewhere.

Video edited by:
Gui Nuo

Quotes:
The refugee crisis is a human crisis.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Karsten Fundal

Artworks:
Odyssey, 2016

Banners, 2017
*Images used in Banners includes historic images by Augustus Sherman (1892–1925)

Banners

[Part of the exhibition “Good fences make good neighbors”, NYC]. Since the 19th century, successive waves of immigrants have settled on the Lower East Side. Many who landed at Ellis Island made it their home. Throughout the city, lamppost banners portray those arrivals, as well as notable exiles and contemporary refugees. Works that combine images and texts about the conditions and experiences of refugees replace bus shelter advertisements. Also in this historic neighborhood, a narrative series at Essex Street Market depicts refugees’ epic journeys, while fence installations at 189 Chrystie Street and 248 Bowery appear unexpectedly, spanning rooftops between buildings. 7th Street Fence is located on 48 East 7th Street in the East Village, the same street where, in the 1980s, Ai Weiwei lived in a basement apartment when he was a student and immigrant. This fence fills the space between two buildings.

Odyssey

Odyssey Wallpaper
“In the last year, I have been producing a documentary on the refugee crisis. I have traveled to over ten different countries across several continents, having visited dozens of refugee camps. I have interviewed refugees and others involved, such as local politicians and NGOs. The refugee crisis has a much broader context. There are different histories, regional and religious conflicts, economic pressures, and environmental crises that have contributed to what we understand to be the refugee crisis. My team and I studied this, beginning with the earliest human movements, stretching back to the Old Testament. With the wallpaper, specifically, we tried to come up with a visual language directly inspired by drawings found in early Greek and Egyptian carvings, pottery, and wall paintings. Within that context, we integrated the new conflicts, with images found on social media and the internet, as well as images from my own involvement. Beyond the images, we also examined literature and the political conditions of the various periods. It took more than half a year to finish the drawing and it relates to six themes: war, the ruins resulting from war, the journey undertaken by the refugees, the crossing of the sea, the refugee camps, and the demonstrations and protests.” – Ai Weiwei, December 2016

LAW OF THE JOURNEY
PLAY

LAW OF THE JOURNEY is an animation reflecting the perilous journeys undertaken by refugees. Inflated rafts and countless human figures embark on journeys with no beginning or end. Since 2014, more than 14,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Video edited by:
Cui Xing


Quotes:
When others are stripped of their freedom, you also lose yours.
 - Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Puccini’s “Turandot” performed by the Teatro dell’Opera Rome

CONDUCTOR Pinchas Steinberg
DIRECTOR Roberto De Simone
REVIVAL DIRECTOR Mariano Bauduin
CHORUS MASTER Roberto Gabbiani
SETS Nicola Rubertelli
COSTUMES Odette Nicoletti
LIGHTING Agostino Angelini
TURANDOT Evelyn Herlitzius
CALAF Marcello Giordani
LIU Carmela Remigio
TIMUR Roberto Tagliavini
PING Simone Del Savio
PONG Saverio Fiore
PANG Gregory Bonfatti
ALTOUM Chris Merritt
MANDARINO Gianfranco Montresor

ORCHESTRA E CORO DEL TEATRO DELLOPERA


Artworks:
Law of the Journey, 2016

Law of the Journey, 2016

Law of the Journey (Prototype B) is one of three prototypes developed in 2016. A larger installation titled Law of the Journey was exhibited at the National Gallery in Prague in 2017. The work is composed of an inflatable boat and inflatable larger-than-life figures in PVC. The boat mirrors those used by refugees on the dangerous sea journeys attempted to reach Europe.

CIRCA 2020 x Ai Weiwei: Investigating the Human Cost of the Refugee Crisis

by Charlie Colville

22nd October

As we enter the last quarter of 2020, a new platform for the creation and exhibition of digital art was launched in the heart of Piccadilly Circus. Known as CIRCA, the platform allows for artists to showcase their work and ideas in the form of a two-minute video on the Piccadilly Lights, one of London’s most famous landmarks.  

EXPAND
43
PLAY

43 is a work that focuses on the case of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Iguala, Mexico. Ai Weiwei produced “Vivos,” a documentary about the families of the missing and their demand for their return. 43 uses material from the documentary, alongside Ai’s LEGO portraits of the missing and deceased students.

Video edited by:
Autumn Rin


Quotes:
Alive they have been taken, alive we want them back!
 - Slogan of the parents of the missing students


Music Credit:
Jens Bjørnkjær

Artworks:
43, 2019
Vivos, 2020

ANIMALITY
PLAY

ANIMALITY is a work about the relationship between humans and animal. The video presents scenes of mass commercial livestock farming, slaughterhouses, religious ritual, and environmental destruction.

Video edited by:
Ma Yan

Quotes:
This is the animals’ world, they are willing to live with us.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Jens Bjørnkjær
Karsten Fundal
Punkgod

Artworks:
None

ANIMALITY 

By Stephanie Gavan

24th October, 2020

I’m thinking about animals, about Ai Weiwei and his cats. I’m thinking of the 40 feline creatures that populate his Beijing compound, how it must feel to have your daily life surveilled by 80 prying eyes. In doing so I’m reminded of another cat, Logos, the siamese pet of Jacques Derrida, and the now famous encounter that took place between them. When emerging from the shower one morning, Derrida found himself disarmed by the fixed gaze of the cat upon his body. Caught off guard, not only by Logos the cat, but by the unexpected shame of his nudity before this animal who looks on ‘just to see’.1 What is it to be seen by one’s cat, or by any animal? Encounters like these disturb our complacency about what it is to be human, they invite us to consider not so much what we know about animals, but what they force us to acknowledge about ourselves, that which we ignore. When the animal looks back, we are exposed. In it’s bottomless gaze; a call, a cry, a plea for a response.

EXPAND
BIG TREE

BIG TREE is a monumental work involving the moulding and casting of a 30-meter tree from the Brazilian rain forest. Ai Weiwei was invited to produce a series of exhibitions across South America in 2018. Ai made several research trips to Brazil and on one trip discovered a 30-meter tall pequi tree in the Trancoso rain forest in Bahia. Ai sent a team of Chinese craftsmen to create a mould of the entire tree in situ. The moulds were taken back to China where the entire tree was cast in iron.

Video edited by:
Ma Yan

Quotes:
Gazing at this fossil,
Even a fool can learn a lot.
Without movement
There is no life.
- Ai Qing, Chinese poet (1910 - 1986)

You can never take freedom for granted. It rots immediately.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Karsten Fundal

Artworks:
A Tree, 2018-2020

COCKROACH

COCKROACH is a work about the Hong Kong uprising in 2019. The year-long protests were sparked by the proposal of a bill that allowed for the extradition of criminal suspects to China. Many in the semi-autonomous city felt the bill would erode what was left of the freedoms promised under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. In 2020, China passed a sweeping national security bill in reaction to the uprisings further tightening the mainland’s control.

Video edited by:
Kimberly Sung

Quotes:
Freedom only comes from struggle. Liberty is about the fight.
- Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
"Glory to Hong Kong"
Written and composed by Thomas, DGX YHL
Courtesy of Goomusic Ltd admin by Kobalt Music Publishing Asia Ltd. / Thomas DGX YHL

Artworks:
Cockroach, 2020

CORONATION

CORONATION is a work about the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. Ai directed a group within the city to document the conditions during the city-wide lockdown that was put in place after the Chinese government acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. The video uses material from Ai Weiwei’s latest documentary feature of the same title. As of September 2020, there have been over 33 million cases and almost 1 million deaths from Covid-19 globally.

Video edited by:
Wang Fen

Quotes:
Without trust, people’s immune system against lies breaks down.
– Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artworks:
Coronation, 2020

MASK

MASK is a work depicting the production of the Ai Weiwei MASK project, alongside scenes of major global cities transformed into ghost towns during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ai Weiwei MASK is a series of face masks printed with designs related to free speech, surveillance, and mythology. The masks were sold on eBay for Charity, raising over $1.4 million USD to support the emergency coronavirus responses of Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and Doctors Without Borders.

Video edited by:
Kimberly Sung

Quotes:
Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.
– Albert Camus, French author (1913 - 1960)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artworks:
Ai Weiwei MASK, 2020

LITTLE BOY

LITTLE BOY is a work depicting the wide array of bombs and missiles humans have created. Beginning with the Cipelli grenade up to the modern guided missile, LITTLE BOY lays bare humanity’s capacity for destruction. War and conflict is one of the main driver’s of displacement, fuelling the rise in number of global refugees. “History of Bombs,” a related art installation, is on view at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Video edited by:
Cui Xing

Quotes:
Humans do not rule the universe. We are temporary passengers.
– Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Punkgod

Artworks:
History of Bombs, 2019-2020

MOUNTAINS AND SEAS

The Shanhaijing, or Classic of Mountains and Seas, is an ancient text dating back to the 4th century BC, an important record of mythology, geography, culture, and the societal structure of the time. The mythological creatures depicted in the Shanhaijing reflected the imagination of the people and the language used to communicate ideas larger than their own understanding. MOUNTAINS AND SEAS is a work that depicts these creatures alongside other myths and symbols related to man’s understanding of life and death.

Video edited by Cui Xing

Quotes:
We cross the same mountains; we cross the same rivers.
– Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist (b. 1957)

Music Credit:
Puccini’s “Turandot” performed by the Teatro dell’Opera Rome
CONDUCTOR Pinchas Steinberg
DIRECTOR Roberto De Simone
REVIVAL DIRECTOR Mariano Bauduin
CHORUS MASTER Roberto Gabbiani
SETS Nicola Rubertelli
COSTUMES Odette Nicoletti
LIGHTING Agostino Angelini

TURANDOT Evelyn Herlitzius
CALAF Marcello Giordani
LIU Carmela Remigio
TIMUR Roberto Tagliavini
PING Simone Del Savio
PONG Saverio Fiore
PANG Gregory Bonfatti
ALTOUM Chris Merritt
MANDARINO Gianfranco Montresor

ORCHESTRA E CORO DEL TEATRO DELLOPERA

Artworks.
Shanhaijing, 2016

NEXT PRESENTATION
ANIMALITY

AI WEIWEI’S HOPE IN THE JAWS OF THE MONSTER

01 OCT 2020: ‘I loved New York—every inch of it. It was like a monster.’

In the story Ai Weiwei tells, there’s always got to be a monster. In New York – where his new series of films for CIRCA 2020 begin, amid street protests that set in motion his journey toward human rights activism – the city convulses like a beast. He writes in his diary after interrogation by a Chinese prison guard that it is always a monster that draws the soldier to a fight, and without this foe, the soldier has no identity. And the monster, he explains, is what we’re fighting today. 

And yet the story he tells, again and again, teeters with hope, with personal joy, and even with belief in miracles. The moral, as it begins to appear, seems to be: the monster is not simply the totalitarian, not simply a power stronger than all of us. But we can’t win until we know what the monster is made of.  


03 OCT 2020: ‘My favorite word? It’s ‘act.’

In October 2020, we are in a moment of profound loss, on an island of time cut off from the past and lacking any real conviction that a future is coming. Just as time during lockdown seems to slip, it also stalls, says Ai Weiwei on a computer screen, talking to me from his living room in Cambridge. He’s written an article about it for The Atlantic, drawing on his experience of being locked in a small cell for 81 days in solitary confinement. This is a moment many of us would rather forget – and we will, which is all the more dangerous. Ai searches for the right experience to compare it to, some kind of disaster, maybe, a “tsunami”: 

“When it is over, it’s over”, says Ai. Our minds shut it off. We will put it in a box. “Or it’s even like a horror movie: when the lights [come] up, we go back to normal. So our memories or emotions are deleted or”… he describes something like compartmentalising something traumatic, a dark box we put memories into when they exist outside the continuous chain of cause and effect. When an event like this happens… “We put it somewhere which is ‘not-normal’.”  

Totalitarians are fond of these moments, since they’re so easily vanished or rewritten like war stories that become rose-tinted in retelling: “Human society is like a tragic child,” summarises Ai, looking out at the screen. “Because you don’t know the past, you’re so uncertain about the future. That really creates a perfect condition of purposelessness. And that is a real challenge for a human state of mind.”

And yet, there’s such hope. 

In 2020, as waves of protest have swept aside monuments to decrepit historical tyranny, purposelessness has not won. And following the toppling of statues to the architects of Western slavery and demonstrations against police violence across the UK and U.S., there is new relevance of Ai’s earliest works. 

Photographs from his time in New York between 1983 and and 1993, document the ACT UP demonstrations against government inaction on the AIDS crisis, protests against racial and gender-based violence, and the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988 [To be displayed on the CIRCA screen on 01 OCT 2020]. Ai’s black-and-white photos of the riot in Tompkins Square Park were used by the American Civil Liberties Union to prove that police had incited the riot by cracking down on demonstrators with extreme brutality. For Ai, in the years running up to Tiananmen Square, it was the eye-opening education in the potential of rights-based protest and the violence of Western democratic powers. 

In Ai’s early work, such rebellion is not only a necessary step to break from ghost stories of tradition, but can in itself begin to construct a new, truer way of living that draws its force from the voices of the living. Both Study of Perspective and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn series [both from 1995 and displayed on 02 and 03 OCT 2020] not only attacked the cultural value of monuments but agitated to replace memorialisation with practices of democratic intervention. Often misrepresented as futile gestures to power, or blunt criticisms of Maoism, Ai’s destruction of an urn had, 25 years ago, already provided one answer to all those who argued that the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston amounted to an erasure of history. “I don’t think the past can be so easily destroyed by taking down monuments,” says Ai on a rainy Friday at the end of September, as he prepares the final edits of the new films, revisiting such early works. “The real monuments should always be won. [By] people taking down a monument, very often, a new monument is established in their mind or heart. So, we always give a new identity to our time by reexamining the past. The past has already had a conclusion – the monument is that conclusion. And very often, [a new generation] realise they cannot accept it.”

Having questioned before lockdown whether he might move away from art, Ai, at present, he does not seem dulled in his multi-pronged creative output or his desire to leverage it for social change. Indeed the CIRCA films, although traversing history, point to a future made possible through committed action, repeatedly highlighting the centrality of the act of dissent, and the moment of revolt – from Perspective and Urn to the film Cockroach about the pro-democracy uprisings in Hong Kong [Footage from the forthcoming film appears 26 OCT 2020]. 

The thirty new films he has produced will be screened on the gigantic corner wall of Piccadilly Circus. Ai has been curious about his new “colonial” surroundings since moving to the UK almost exactly a year ago, recently unveiling an anti-war artwork in the atrium of the Imperial War Museum and chastising Britain on the BBC’s Today Programme for its unwillingness to engage meaningfully with its former colonial subjects in Hong Kong. On the 2nd and 3rd October, when his two works from 1995 appear on the outsize screens of Piccadilly Circus, they will shine a light out from just about the epicentre of British imperial pageantry, a few hundred yards from both the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, and into the the commercial heart of London. 

The appeal to historical myth as a lazy foundation for value has been playfully mocked by Ai and, here too, he carefully endorses material change. Careful not to speak on the behalf of any protest but his own, he says it is clear that the establishment now denies the “new clear definition” of our time. “There’s conflict between our understanding and the establishment. And when those things happen, taking down the monument is only a small act.”


04 OCT 2020: ‘Freedom is a god-given right. No matter if you are rich or poor, intelligent or not, it belongs to you, and no one can touch it.’

On Piccadilly’s screen, Ai’s episodic films together form something like an hour long auto-biopic, taking us from his initiating experience of conceptual art, as a student in New York, to the Coronavirus crisis in which we are morassed, through the planetary environmental crises that have become a focus of his work.

Ai is excited about the “subversive” possibilities of escaping the museum to display in an unexpected corner of the city. The artist who has painted the Coca Cola logo on the side of ancient Chinese vases, as a symbol of the unbounded domination of consumer culture will, for two minutes each day, push aside the Coca Cola advertising sign that has lit up this monument since 1955, two years before his birth.

Ai recently turned 63 and calls CIRCA one of his major works – a chance to sift through his history, from his groundbreaking early series to recent films and installations, to find lessons for the challenges of today. “This project gave me a chance to rethink how I started my art, and my activism and my involvement with social change and human rights and freedom of speech.”

Initially created during eight years of intensive travel (1995-2003), the images for the Study of Perspective series have now been assembled over three decades, and juxtapose the minuscule individual against the massive architecture of power – Tiananmen Square, the Eiffel Tower, the White House or Trump Tower. “To put something in the public space is very challenging,” he says, explaining that he never imagined his middle finger appearing at a scale equal to the monuments he flips off. “Those are very private moments. You take a camera to shoot in your left hand, with one finger [stuck] out to those cultural institutions or political institutions. But it’s a private, harmless moment. Ironically, I would never imagine those images can be used in public and in an advertising entity, or on that kind of scale. So it re-examines and gives a very different meaning to this attitude.”

Although the first of Ai’s 30 films will take viewers back to the start of his career, the success of the new CIRCA commission has been in retraining a focus on the question of where we go from here. Unlike major museum exhibitions, which are commissioned years in advance, the entire process, from the first email to Ai’s studio, to it appearing on the screen has taken less than three months, allowing the artists to respond in public to issues that are still very much alive. Among them unseen footage from unreleased documentaries and not before seen images from historic series.

Ai’s 30-day CIRCA programme spotlights a body of work that prefigures more than just the battle for memory and memorials: railing against thousands of deaths caused by political negligence and the horrors of a brainless surveillance state; swimming in the murky timelines of lives spend in confinement, apparently both endless and vanishing; casting bodies as weapons and independent actors as the only real barrier we can build against totalitarianism. 

Fresh context is clearest in the written messages that punctuate each film, most drawn from Ai’s journal (some of which have been pulled out as the dotted headers of this essay). I suggest to him that each seems to be a call to action: “Not necessarily,” he responds. “Even in the most painful and the most deadly situations, I’m still trying to seek irony, joy.”


05 OCT 2020: ‘If you seek to understand your motherland, you are already on the road to becoming a criminal.’

In his latest film, a two hour documentary named Coronation [27 OCT 2020], Ai documents life inside Wuhan, the birthplace of the pandemic, as regular people negotiate the all powerful military lockdown in interactions both tragic and absurd. “I really clearly examine how efficient authoritarian society functions,” says Ai, who orchestrated amateur cinematographers to capture haunting images of the city-turned-prison. “And, yes, they are very efficient, and not only because they can limit the openness of the discussion and the information.” 

The Chinese government proved successful at quarantining the early, terrible news that threatened to burst out in the early days of the disease and then, later, rigorous in its efforts to stem the spread of the disease. “They can really lock down the city, lock down every individual in their household. They simply cannot physically come out, because the door is sealed and locked, and there is a guard on the street and they will put you in jail, immediately. So this kind of military style efficiently stopped the virus spreading.”

Liberal democracies’s failure to control the virus have been clear for all to see. The U.S. and UK, as well Brazil and India, have been among the world’s least effective, resulting in excess deaths on a massive scale. Since early March, there have been only rare days when China has reported more than 100 new cases, while the USA has recorded more than 20,000 new cases each day for the last two months. For Ai, this is the trade-off between rights and efficiency. “In the West – in the UK or the US or in many other nations – the disease, the government cannot really make clear decisions on how humans should behave,” he says.“So very often the argument says the democratic government doesn’t have the same kind of efficiency as authoritarian society towards some massive, unified decisions, which is true.” 

But Ai resists any call for expediency to temper democracy. His films [26 OCT 2020] highlight the crackdown on pro-democracy uprising in Hong Kong in 2019 and remind of the arbitrary suffering inflicted on him – imprisonment, deprivation, torture of solitary confinement, a cerebral haemorrhage following a police beating – while pointing to the far greater unheard victims of repression and state violence [18 OCT 2020]. Ai takes a long view of the crisis, considering the decades of brutality that have preceded it, and answers that the authoritarian political system means that life in China has “no meaning”.

“The cost of China is, you will never have individual intelligence and imagination and passion,” he says. “Yes, [democracies] may make mistakes, but we are able to control our own fate… every step of a decision has to respect the rights of the individual and human rights. So, that’s the big difference.”


08 OCT 2020: ‘It takes an enemy to make me a soldier. If I don’t have a great monster to fight, who am I?’

Ai Weiwei was born 28 August 1957 in Beijing. His father Ai Qing was among the most famous poets in 20th Century China, influenced by early Soviet writers including Mayakovsky and modern Western poets including Walt Whitman, in addition to his own experiences being brought up in a peasant household, amid the pre-revolutionary environment of 1930s east China. The family name Ai 艾 was invented by Ai Qing, during the older Ai’s time in jail, by striking a cross through the lower part of the family name he had inherited at birth, Jiang 蒋. In an interview with the journal China Heritage in 2018, Ai explains that his father gave him his name pointing into a dictionary with his eyes closed, hitting the character Wei 未. Wei can bear the meanings “future” or “not yet” but its meaning when the character doubled is unclear. Ai says he is glad to have a unique name but doesn’t dwell on the meaning. 

Ai Qing was at one time close to Mao Zedong, but was denounced by peers as counter-revolutionary after defending a fellow writer, around the time of his son’s birth. The family were exiled in 1958 to Heilongjiang, in northeastern China, and then to Xinjiang on the country’s eastern edge, where they lived for 16 years. “I started just like anybody else,” explains Ai. I take this to mean without a privileged upbringing. “My father was exiled, I never really had a good formal education. And we always have been seen as dissidents. That means your situation is always put in danger, because they say you’re against the party, against the country.”

Ai’s lifelong personal battles with the Chinese government are well documented, including afour years or imprisonment and house arrest between 2011 and 2015, in which he was subjected to interrogations, charged with tax evasion, and banned from leaving the country. The question asked above – “If I don’t have a great monster to fight, who am I?” – Ai says he asked an interrogator during this period of repression and appears at the end of a film [08 OCT 2020] that records the demolition of his Shanghai studio by the Chinese authorities in 2011. His subsequent studio was bulldozed as well, this time without warning, in 2018. 

But Ai says that in the four decades since he first left China, the struggle against totalitarianism has become less contained within national borders. In an article published in the New York Times just before lockdown, he criticised European and American manufacturers, including Volkswagen, Unilever and Nestlé, for producing goods in Xinjiang, where as many as a million ethnic Uighurs and other prisoners have been kept in internment camps. Many of his targets were based in Germany (where Ai lived between 2015-2019, before moving to Cambridge). He accuses those producers of cynically exploiting vague ideas of “cultural difference” to excuse themselves from their human rights obligations – all while Western diplomacy, big business, and Chinese authoritarianism have been active partners in Xinjiang’s brutal regime of hyper-surveillance and cheap labour.  

“Since I started, very early around the early 90s, I started really thinking about what would be the struggle after the Cold War, after the Berlin Wall comes down,” says Ai. “So I started to realise the ultimate struggle will be individuals, under the power of the collective essence of political power.” He name-checks Muji, Uniqlo, H & M, and Adidas – all retailers with flagship stores in the shopping district that ring the Picadilly Circus screen – whose supply chains are linked through Xinjiang’s vast, sparsely populated desert terrain. “The real financial and political power today has no border and no religion and not any kind of restrictions. They are moving to become much faster, bigger and much more profitable than human society can ever imagine. And individual rights and human rights have been facing a real challenge – and a new challenge.” 


11 OCT 2020: ‘Freedom is not an absolute condition, but a result of resistance.’

There is no naive triumphalism in Ai’s rebellion – no imagined moment where the political power of the Chinese Communist Party or global financial order falls to individual rebellion. “I’m a failure, anyway,” he says during a plaintive moment during our discussion. “Because how can you confront this authoritarian, powerful state like China? It’s impossible, it’s been proved by my father’s generation – millions of intellectuals, vanished.”

Ai’s fifth film [05 OCT 2020] will show a roll-call of 5,219 names of children who were killed in the Sichuan earthquake, when flimsy “tofu-skin schools” built in corrupt deals between government officials and construction companies, buckled. These names were not collected by any official source, but by a citizen’s investigation launched by Ai in 2008, to counter an official omerta. This attempt to hold to account the system triggered among the most brutal periods of repression of Ai’s work by the Chinese state, including his imprisonment in solitary confinement, which he describes as a form of mental torture. The earthquake’s brutal fallout is one case-study for Ai’s fear that regimes can sponsor memory erasure. By spending a year documenting it, his team (mostly assembled from young volunteers) provide an example for how resistance is possible. 

I ask if he has seen the recent New York Times front page, when the death toll from COVID-19 hit 100,000 in the US. It listed the names and told stories about hundreds who had died, in a journalistic attempt to humanise the victims of the virus, and preserve a memory of lives extinguished by official negligence. For Ai, the Sichuan disaster was a crushing experience, the emotional weight of political failure, which compelled him to take actions that he is still paying for. (He is desperate to see his ageing mother, Gao Ying, but visiting her in China carries risks.)

Could these moments be similarly inciting for many in the U.S. – where the death count has already hit 200,000, and the deaths of 500 or 1,000 in a day might no longer make the front page – or here in the UK, as infection rates again spike, I ask? “I think every day, our humanity is – I don’t know how to say it in English – at such a challenge,” he responds. Seeing what is going on around us and not knowing how to do anything is stultifying: “It’s like looking at a bleeding wound, and being incapable of stopping the bleeding and healing it. But on our human body, it’s not just one location but several locations with those open wounds.”


13 OCT 2020: ‘Body as weapon’

Ai’s diagnosis of the way to begin resisting and the way to begin healing these wounds are one in the same. “I think that the only thing we need concern is to make a better ourself, rather than better world,” he concludes. 

Ai’s position far from ego-centrism. The tension between collectivity and individuality has always been central to Ai’s work, not least his giant Sunflower Seeds commission for Turbine Hall [09 OCT 2020], in which made up of millions of hand painted porcelain seeds, each seemingly identical, yet unique. He believes that communal struggle for a better world requires us to rid ourselves of “selfish” instincts and take responsibility for human and non-human life: “Individuals never really prepared to accept this kind of challenge,” he says, discussing the new complex of global financial and political actors. “So, first, it really takes our consciousness, and our understanding about what life is about and how an individual can be involved, and can contribute to the social struggle.” 

Individual acts contribute to this sense of a better “ourself”. Here, Ai can again demonstrate what he preaches, facing violent retribution for defending fellow artists and activists, including advocate Tan Zuoren, whose trial Ai was attending as a witness when he was detained and beaten. Like his father, Ai has taken this responsibility despite the cost. “Also to establish this belief: this is possible,” he adds. “It is possible by individual acts and the individual intelligence, emotions, and the sensitivity to really overcome this – this monster-like totalitarianism.”

Many of Ai’s works can be seen as an attempt to bridge this gap, with images and experiences – spoken with humour or pathos – that can be understood by an audience outside of the museum. They don’t necessarily usher viewers from purposelessness to all the way to action, but lead toward some form of agency. 

Ai’s monsters encompass not only political evil and corporate control, but increasingly the destruction of the natural and animal life, as well as refugee crises driven by war, political violence, environmental collapse, and famine. Omni, his first virtual reality video, paired human and animal concerns, entwines the stories of Rohingya refugees [20 OCT 2020] in Bangladesh’s gigantic Cox’s Bazar camp with the fate of working elephants  once employed in the Burmese logging industry. His latest new museum work, History of Bombs [Little Boy, 29 OCT 2020], is at London’s Imperial War Museum until May 2021, where he has taken over the floor of the museum to explore the deathly power of different explosives designed to kill ever-more clinically or indiscriminately. In an institution which typically lionises warriors and invites us to gaze admiringly at war machines, Ai’s addition tilts the balance toward discomfort and, frankly, disgust. 

In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, Ai ended by talking about his waning energy to go on creating art, suggesting he might open a hair salon. But there is little of that apparent now, even as he complains he looks tired in his webcam reflection. In CIRCA, surveying what he has made, it is creative acts of resistance that begin this process of cultivating empathetic agency in public, even in a landscape of totalitarian repression or indifference. “Art is so powerful in those moments, because it’s so detached and no authoritarian can stop you doing art. That language, they don’t understand. They just simply don’t understand what gave you such a privilege to do that. So, most of my acts, if I look through those 30 pieces, maybe even more than half of them is just my personal joy.”

All this focus on oneself is because, he says, the essence of what we’re fighting is not external to us, as individuals or as a species. “It has become some kind of mythology. It’s like: we are fighting. And we are struggling. But who is the enemy? You know: what are we really fighting, as human society?”

“I think the real monster is ourself,” he shrugs. “There’s no other monsters. The universe is at peace, at a harmonious stage, without human society.”

“Humans create as their own enemy. They build the bombs. They are trying to master nature. And then, of course, they are very greedy, selfish, and they’re insecure, and they’re not intelligent.”


26 OCT 2020: ‘Freedom only comes from struggle, liberty is about the fight.’

I ask Ai: in planning for CIRCA 2020, how much did you think about the pedestrian walking through Piccadilly Circus – the London businessman, the teenage tourist, the Westminster City Council staff member – who happens to find themselves under the advertisers’ lights at 8:20 that day? “The art has been put there to give a surprise. And it’s almost surreal,” he says, to offer up images stripped of the advertiser’s rationale to sell or seduce you with the product. 

Ai is less concerned with the audiences who might already have sought his work out in galleries than he is with these unexpectant passers-by. Making a change to their mindsets, even connecting with them, is not guaranteed. But to not try would be to demonstrate the failure of imagination and purpose. 

Ai has spent a lot of time during lockdown with his 10-year-old son, Ai Lao, who appears almost every day on his Instagram, picking mushrooms, climbing hay bales, giving his dad a haircut. His education has driven his decision to move to England, after experiencing hostility in Berlin. 

During our conversation, “responsibility” – a word he repeatedly uses – seems to be what is driving Ai today. Why his works are increasingly skewing toward  mass media documentaries and film and the public realm: the opportunities he has been given to attempt to communicate are not ones he can refuse. 

“You always believe there’s a possibility. You always believe there’s a miracle,” he says, speaking of breaking through to new audiences. “I always call for humanity. I always think there’s good will for the next generation. Of course, I believe they also have to fight but we have to solve the issues right in front of us should not give those issues to the next generation.”

This process of purging selfishness, rediscovering responsibility, is what ultimately means we can look in the mirror and not see a worthy animal, and not a monster in ourselves, he explains.

“With no compassion, we’re just selfish creatures. And if you’re just a selfish creature, anything that happens to you is, right, you know? The only thing you can blame is yourself .”

“We have to come back to ourselves, to bring back our memory. That means we have to re-establish our ability to care. In a religious sense, we have to have compassion.”

 29 OCT 2020: ‘Humans do not rule the universe. We are temporary passengers.’

By Matthew Ponsford

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