Chinese artist Ai Weiwei may be strictly forbidden from leaving China, but that hasn’t stopped his voice from carrying far across the world. In fact, his presence is more prominent than ever. From the recent documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” to his involvement in the 2012 Olympics, Ai Weiwei has become a household name, and a source of inspiration. Just a year ago, Ai was detained by Chinese authorities for nearly three months. While the government cited tax evasion as reason for the incarceration, it is common knowledge that Ai was arrested for his defiant stance against the Chinese government. Since the incident, Ai has been reluctant to speak out, and rightly so—he has a family to protect. But at a new exhibit at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, it seems that this artist-turned-rebel-turned-hero has once again resumed his mission to expose the truth and spread his message.
Ai Weiwei’s latest exhibit is a living sculpture called “The Box.” It consists of a cactus and a crab, confined in a white cube that is precisely 40cm x 40cm x 40cm. It will only be on display through May 26, 2012, at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London.
“It is a very exciting moment for us,” says Houldsworth. “He is a very inspirational person. We want to do anything that can help him and anything that can help get his message across.”
While Ai hopes spectators will form their own interpretations of the piece, there are clearly many parallels between the exhibit and Ai’s own situation. The confines of the white cube reflect his incarceration and subsequent confinement to China. Many have also proposed that the restricted space symbolizes the harsh restrictions China places on its citizens. The cactus, a living piece, forced to live under the glare of a spotlight in this confined space. The plant itself—hard, prickly, resilient—is seen as a survivor, refusing to fall victim to its surroundings, much like Ai himself.
In order to ensure the exhibit was exactly as he envisioned, Ai gave very strict instructions, especially about the cactus itself. The gallery put much effort into finding the specimen, an Echinopsis, as it proved rather difficult to locate.
“It was not that easy at all,” said the gallery’s Carsten Recksik, who led the search to find a suitable cactus. “Ai was very specific on the variety. I was calling dozens, hundreds of garden shops. I’m not really into plants, but I am a bit now—it’s fascinating.”
The crab is placed on top of the cactus, so as to be making a move and dominating over the plant. It is the oppressor. Many have been quick to point out that the crab is actually a river crab, giving the exhibit a more complex meaning. The Chinese mitten crab, more commonly known as the river crab, is a Chinese symbol for harmony. In Chinese Mandarin, the word “river crab,” is very similar to the word “harmonious society,” and became a commonly used term to describe Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s signature ideology of a harmonious government.
The space itself is a brightly lit box shielded by a layer of glass, set within a black wall, to give the illusion that the box is floating, like a dream, or an idea. The arrangement is just another aspect of Ai’s resilient metaphor, which is exactly what the gallery intends for it to be—another tool for the artist’s disposal.
“We commission emerging and established artists to do whatever they want in the box,” says Houldsworth. “Whether they want to do a conceptual piece or want to take it away to work in their studio or paint on it. It is a terribly difficult space, but very exciting.”
Of course Ai does not have the luxury of taking the box “away to work” on in his studio, but he does have the support and endorsement of the gallery’s staff, and not to mention the world that waits with bated breath for his next move.
It’s a small step that implies great risk. More than anything, Ai wants to send a message, and is bound and determined to do so, even under the watchful eye of the Chinese government. He has dedicated his entire life to his creative practice, and with this new exhibit, he is once again telling the world he refuses to surrender, or to allow anyone to suppress what he believes—a true testament to his tremendous courage and unflagging hope that change is possible.