Framed by two winged figures that crown the organ, the vast sculpture is shot through by sunbeams falling from the windows of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Where the rays hit, the nine-metre work leaps into sinister glory.
Described as a “chandelier”, though it casts no light, the work is the centrepiece of a new solo show in the church by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Entitled “La Commedia Umana”, it has been assembled from more than 2,000 pieces of black Murano glass fashioned to replicate bones, organs and surveillance cameras. The result is a hypnotic, hanging ossuary that begs us to fight for our freedom before we die.
When Ai and I sit down to chat in his glamorous San Marco hotel, he tells me the sculpture marks his ambition to “understand death, celebrate death” because “it’s part of life’s journey. Life and death can never be separate, otherwise they have no meaning. Now with this war in Europe and the environmental change, there will be more human casualties.”
Little wonder it looks so at home in Palladio’s architectural masterpiece. In 16th-century Italy, life and death were intertwined thanks to all-pervading Christianity. Step behind the organ and you’re face to face with Tintoretto’s “The Last Supper”, a masterpiece of chiaroscuro in which Christ is bathed in a halo of light beneath a small bronze lamp — humble predecessor to Ai’s sculpture, which resembles metal from a distance — as a maid reels back in shock at his divinity.
It is 11 years since Ai, now 65, served 81 days in a Beijing prison, allegedly for tax fraud but almost certainly because the Chinese authorities had wearied of his relentless exposure of their misdeeds.
In 2015, Ai left China, settling first in Berlin, then the UK and now Portugal. Devoting his art to the exposure of injustice, the suppression of free expression — he is an outspoken supporter of Julian Assange — and uncontrolled capitalism, he has made installations out of life jackets worn by refugees and filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with sunflower seeds to symbolise collective resistance to both Maoist China and mass consumption. This autumn he will curate an exhibition of work by prisoners in London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Although it also includes works made from Lego, the Venice show marks the apotheosis of Ai’s bond with Murano glass. Other works on display include “Glass Root”, an opaque, ragged fragment that evokes our planet’s amputated forests and, a little more playfully, a glass takeaway food box, construction helmets and a toilet roll.
Indeed, our conversation takes place underneath Ai’s latest chandelier, which has been installed in the hotel. Dripping with flowers and handcuffs, its intricate design embodies Ai’s bittersweet vision but also owes much to the entrepreneurial flair of Murano impresario Adriano Berengo, who also produced “La Commedia Umana”.
After founding his eponymous Murano furnace in 1989 to work specifically with contemporary artists, Berengo first visited Ai in Beijing in 2006 but only started working with him after he moved to the west. Such persistence has seen Berengo create one of the few furnaces to remain buoyant at a moment when rising gas prices exacerbated by Putin’s war is cooling other Murano ovens.
Much credit, too, to the Murano craftsmen — and now a few women — many of whom work the glass much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. For Ai, that time-honoured collective practice is part of the joy of working on the Venetian island.
“You learn so much from seeing how in ancient times people fabricate their work with knowledge, passion and skill,” he murmurs, before pointing out the contrast with the modern ethos that “encourages individualism. They say you have talent, you are the one, but I’m born of the continuity of human effort. I’m in the same river flowing in a different location.”
Ai’s democratic spirit is evident in the mischievous yet courteous manner with which the artist, dressed in a restrained cream shirt and black trousers, treats everyone around him. Inquisitive and alert — he tinkers with my tape recorder to make sure it’s functioning, although his concern may also reflect his studio’s request for a copy — the attention he pays to every question reflects a man who takes no idea for granted, no system of power at face value.
Ai’s distaste for commercialism, which he perceives as equally rampant in the west and the east, has made him a scourge of contemporary art’s symbiotic relationship with profit. Most art, he tells me, now does no more than “reflect the mainstream” and provide “comfort, entertainment and please the market”.
Yet Ai’s hardly an art-world outsider. He is represented by three major galleries: Berlin’s neugerriemschneider, and Lisson Gallery and Galleria Continua, which both have spaces around the world. Meanwhile, Berengo tells me he hopes “La Commedia Umana” — which cost him €1.5mn to produce — will sell for about €5mn.
“I do work with the system,” Ai admits. “I’m not saying you can’t work with the system.” But, he adds, he is “always trying to make an argument about the moral condition and philosophical background to the work. I have to ask why I have to have [these] exhibitions? It’s not about making it appealing.”
As an example of his resistance to market forces, he cites two recent films. One, Coronation, explores the first outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan: “We have people [who] secretly shoot there, it’s dangerous.” The other, Cockroach, focuses on “Hong Kong defending its freedom”.
Both films have been turned down “thousands of times” by international film festivals. Why? He laughs hollowly. “The largest consuming market is in China. They can’t release something controversial. Everywhere self-censors. If you think you’re making work in freedom, then [the work’s] not relevant.”
With his own work off limits in China and recently censored in Hong Kong, Ai is coruscating about western museums such as the Pompidou, Tate and the V&A that have been paid millions by state-owned companies to realise new museums in China. “I’m not against communications and cultural exchange. But those museums are only taking the values of commerce. They are bowing to a state who kills different ideas. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
As for private galleries that trade in China — which include his own dealers Lisson and Continua — he says drily: “Galleries are no different from a shoemaker, or Apple . . . They all have the biggest market in China.”
Ai’s blend of pragmatism and idealism may explain his affinity for glass, a chameleon material that, as he puts it, “starts as liquid but must go through fire to find its final form”.
Those words are a metaphor for his own incarceration. Isolated, stripped of all privacy and interrogated mercilessly, a lesser mortal would have broken. Yet Ai emerged with his kindness, imagination and activist soul intact. How did he sustain himself?
“Belief in humanity,” he tells me. “You have to believe even the guards are mistreated.” As an artist, he says, it’s his duty to “build communications with people who are not privileged, who don’t know that much, who don’t understand contemporary art and cannot touch freedom of speech.” Ai kept faith that those who tormented him “in their heart are on my side”. Incredibly, some of his jailers even whispered their support aloud, confirming he was right to trust his fellow beings.
Today, that conviction appears to have been repaid. He seems happy in Portugal. The country, he says, “accepts me. It’s friendly, cheaper and doesn’t have the arrogance of the fast, developed, capitalist society. It’s more like a farmer’s society.” He pauses. “And it’s suitable for my age.” He seems to have surprised himself with that last remark. “Interesting, right?”
Is it possible he is entering a more contemplative era? “I’m old. I’ve had some disease. I could die any moment,” he tells me at one point.
That he’s meditating on mortality is borne out by La Commedia Umana but I suspect Ai will challenge earthly powers to his last breath. Indeed, his recent decision to speak out against mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations, although he himself has had the jabs, was made because “your ultimate freedom is how you want to live or how you want to die”.
One thing’s for sure: he won’t go down without a fight.
To November 27, berengo.com
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