Artist Ai Weiwei warns against overconfidence in ‘difficult’ times

Venice, Italy — Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei warns of hubris in what he calls “such a difficult time” with his first glass sculpture, made on the Venetian island of Murano, with the ominous subtitle: “Memento Mori,” Latin for “Remember You Must Die.” .”

Russian bombs fall on Ukraine. China is exerting its military strength in the Taiwan Strait. Migrants repeatedly die at sea when smuggler boats sink. The earth is warming, causing drought, collapsing glaciers and violent storms. The pandemic continues.

“We are talking about a lot of things. We’re talking about immigrants, about the dead, about the war, about a lot of things,” Ai told the Associated Press in Venice on Friday.

He stands by his 9 meters high, almost 3 tons heavy black glass sculpture, which is suspended above the nave of the deconsecrated church of San Giorgio Maggiore, opposite St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Titled “The Human Comedy: Memento Mori,” the sculpture is the centerpiece of an Ai exhibit at the church that opens Sunday.

The huge hanging artwork is part chandelier, part ossuary, with intricately suspended molded glass skeletons and skulls, both human and animal, balanced with glass-blown human organs and scattered likenesses of the Twitter bird logo and surveillance cameras, hinting at the darker side of technology.

“We see the environment completely disappearing, being destroyed by human effort… and that will cause a much greater disaster or famine. Or war, there is a potential political battle between China and the West as China claims more control over Hong Kong and threatens control over Taiwan, Ai said.

“We need to rethink humans and environmental legitimacy. Do we really deserve this planet, or are we just that short-sighted and racist? And very, very ordinary self-demanding, selfishness,’ the artist added.

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The exhibition also includes smaller glass sculptures. One depicts Ai himself as a prisoner, a reference to his months in a Chinese prison in 2011. Another superimposes his distorted face on a replica of an 18th-century statue titled “Allegory of Envy.” A wooden sculpture of a tree trunk fills a sacristy. Colored glass safety helmets save seats in the choir. Lego brick 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 provided Chinese authorities with a “potential model” for understanding how such an operation in Taiwan might play out, without acting as encouragement or warning.

“I think China is part of the global power struggle that reflects our modern understanding and the classic notion of territory and who has the right to do what,” he said. “What’s happening in the Russia-Ukraine conflict might give China a clear mental exercise about what they want to do in Taiwan, if necessary.”

But the artist says any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a mistake and a misunderstanding of Taiwan’s history.

“The Chinese think that Taiwan belongs to China, but in reality China and Taiwan have been separated for more than 70 years. They have their own social structure, which is more democratic and peaceful than in China,” he said. Any attempt by China to claim Taiwan by force will result in “the ultimate battle”.

He sees the struggle in China as a struggle for the legitimacy of control by the authorities, while the challenge in the West is the continued 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.

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“That’s why China is so confident,” Ai said. “They know that the West cannot do without China.”

He cited examples of Western hypocrisy, including the rejection by festivals in Europe and the United States of films he made during the pandemic about Wuhan’s first lockdown and the struggle in Hong Kong.

After praising the films, festivals eventually give “the last word, we can’t show it,” for fear of losing access to the Chinese market, Ai said.

His artworks travel more smoothly, he said, because his artistic language is more difficult to interpret.

“My work is about a new vocabulary, so it’s difficult for someone who has no knowledge at all. It takes study,” Ai said. “I don’t do any piece to please the audience. But I always want to say something that is necessary.”

Tourists who wandered in from the waterbus were delighted to have come across an exhibition of the famously dissident artist.

“Is it metal? When I first saw this, I thought it was hell,” said Kenneth Cheung, a Hong Kong resident who now lives in Toronto, Canada, examining the imposing glass sculpture. “When you’re in a church, it’s even stronger, more powerful.”

It took three years for the main sculpture to be realized with the help of artists at a glass studio in Murano, using three techniques: traditional blown Murano glass, wax molds and injection moulds. Studio owner Adriano Berengo said he pursued Ai for years to establish a collaboration with an artist he admires for his strong political beliefs.

“He shows his face. He’s not hiding. He is ready to risk his life, and he did it in China,” Berengo said.

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The exhibition will run until November 27 in Venice. From there, the hanging sculpture will go to the Design Museum in London and then, hopefully, a buyer, Berengo said.

“It has to be a big museum. How else can you keep such a work of art?” he said.

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