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Ai Weiwei: imprisoned but not silenced

August 20, 2011

The outspoken artist and activist, whose ‘Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads’ is at LACMA, discusses his art and life after prison.


Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei closes the door to his studio after speaking to the media in Beijing. (Reuters)

There are artists who prefer to stay out of the public spotlight and devote themselves solely to their work. And then there is Ai Weiwei.
An Internet activist with a history of getting into trouble with Chinese authorities, Ai has been outspoken in support of free speech and human rights. He spent 81 days in jail this spring before being released on bail but still faces charges related to tax evasion — charges supporters regard as an attempt by the government to silence him.
The terms of Ai’s release forbid him from discussing his legal case. But on Friday, Ai spoke by phone from Beijing about his artwork, specifically his touring installation “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads,” which opens Saturday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and runs through February.
The artist, 54, was clearly in a chatty mood and the conversation touched on his health and even his recent return to Twitter.

Ai won’t be able to attend the opening of “Circle” at LACMA because he is confined to Beijing as part of his bail arrangement. “Circle” features large-scale statue heads of the Chinese zodiac and is inspired by those at China’s Yuanming Yuan palace, which was pillaged by British and French military forces in 1860.

“It’s about the future and the past, and how China is looked at today and how it looks at itself,” explained Ai. “It has many, many different layers — is it art or not art, and to what degree?”

In 2009, Chinese officials attempted to halt the auction of two of the original heads that had been owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The sale was regarded by some as an affront to China’s cultural identity.

In his work, Ai re-creates some of the known statue heads and invents others, his installation fusing the old with the contemporary while playing with the notion of fakery versus authenticity — which he has explored extensively.

Ai said the installation should appeal to a wide range of people, including those who have no art background. “I wanted it to relate to the general public,” he explained. “Art is a way of communication. It should be shared by an audience. I’m always trying to find a way to make the message more relatable to our daily lives.”

Ai, who suffers from hypertension and diabetes, described his health as generally good. “My blood sugar and blood pressure were not normal before I was detained. Now they have become very normal to a degree,” he said from the Beijing compound where he lives and works.

The artist said he lost about 26 pounds while in detention and has gained back a little more than 6 since his release.

In 2009, Ai underwent brain surgery after suffering a beating at the hands of police. His recent stint in detention didn’t help matters; he said that he has problems focusing on tasks for extended periods.

“I cannot do long reading … [and] I cannot concentrate very well. But maybe that will be nice for an artist,” he said.

Read more at: Ai Weiwei: imprisoned but not silenced

By David Ng, Los Angeles Times

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