VENICE, Italy (AP) — Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei has warned of what he calls “a time of trouble” with his first glass sculpture, subtitled “Memorial Mori,” on the Venetian island of Murano. Latin for “Remember You Must Die”
Russian bombs fall on Ukraine. China is flexing its military muscle in the Taiwan Strait. Migrants often die at sea when smugglers’ boats sink. The earth heats up, causing droughts, melting glaciers and creating violent storms. Epidemics linger.
“We are talking about many, many things. We’re talking about migrants, death, war, many, many issues,” Ae told The Associated Press in Venice on Friday.
He stands next to his 9-meter (29.5-ft), nearly 3-ton black glass sculpture, which is suspended over the central nave of the desecrated church of San Giorgio Maggiore, facing Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. Titled “The Human Comedy: Memento Mori,” the sculpture is the centerpiece of an Ai exhibit at the church that opens Sunday.
The massive hanging artwork is part chandelier, part ligature, with intricate glass skeletons and skulls of humans and animals, balanced with blown-glass human organs and Twitter bird logos and scattered likenesses of surveillance cameras. Technology.
“We see the environment completely disappearing, destroyed by human effort… and that will lead to a huge disaster or famine. Or war, there is a potential political conflict between China and the West” as China exercises more control over Hong Kong and threatens to control Taiwan, Ae said.
“We have to rethink the legitimacy of humans and the environment. Do we really deserve this planet or are we so short sighted and racist? And a lot, even just self-demand, selfishness,” added the artist.
Small glass sculptures are also on display. One shows Ai himself as a prisoner, referring to his months in a Chinese prison in 2011. Another puts his disfigured face on a replica of an 18th-century statue called the “Allegory of Jealousy.” A wooden sculpture of a tree trunk is filled. Purity Colored glass hard hats save space in choirs. Lego-brick portrait replicas of famous paintings and Chinese zodiacs line the walls of adjacent rooms.
Ae said he thought Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided a “potential model” for Chinese authorities to understand how such an operation could be carried out in Taiwan without prompting or warning.
“I think China is part of a global power struggle that reflects our modern understanding and classic perception of territory and who has the right to do what,” he said. “What happens in the Russian-Ukraine conflict gives China a clear mental exercise in what 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 70 years. They have their own social structure, which is more democratic and peaceful than China’s,” he said. Any move by China to claim Taiwan by force would result in a “final conflict”.
He sees it as a struggle for the legitimacy of the authorities’ control in China, while the challenge in the West is the continuing need to protect democracy and, with it, freedom of speech. Economic dependence on China’s cheap manufacturing is the West’s Achilles’ heel, he said.
“That’s why China is so confident,” Ai said. “They know the West cannot survive without China.”
He cited examples of Western hypocrisy, including the rejection of films he made during the pandemic depicting Wuhan’s first lockdown and struggles in Hong Kong by festivals in Europe and the United States.
After praising the films, festivals ultimately “give the last word, we can’t show it,” for fear of losing access to the Chinese market, Ae said.
His works travel more easily, he said, because their artistic language is difficult to interpret.
“My work is about new vocabulary, so it’s difficult for someone who has absolutely no knowledge. It needs to be studied,” Ay said. “I don’t make a piece to please the audience. But I always have something to say that is essential.”
Wandering tourists from the water bus were delighted to stumble upon an exhibition by the famous dissident artist.
“Is it metal? When I first saw it, I thought it represented hell,” Kenneth Cheung, a Hong Kong resident now living in Toronto, Canada, said as he examined the glass sculpture. “Being in the church, it’s stronger, more powerful.”
It took three years to create the main sculpture with the help of artists from the glass studio on Murano using three techniques: traditional Murano blown glass, wax mold and injection mold. Studio owner Adriano Berengo said he pursued AI for years to collaborate with an artist he admired for his strong political beliefs.
“He shows his face. He doesn’t hide. He’s willing to risk his life, and he did in China,” Berengo said.
The exhibition runs 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 should be a big museum. Otherwise, how can you keep such a work of art?” he said.