VENICE, Italy (AP) – Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei warns against arrogance at what he calls “such a difficult time” with his first glass sculpture, made on the Venetian island of Murano, with an alarming subtitle: “Latin Memento Mori for” Remember, you must die.”
Russian bombs fall on Ukraine. China is displaying its military power in the Taiwan Strait. Migrants frequently die at sea as smugglers’ boats sink. The Earth is warming, causing droughts, glaciers collapse and violent storms. The pandemic remains.
We are talking about many things. We’re talking about immigrants, about deaths, about war, about many, many issues, Aye told the Associated Press in Venice on Friday.
Standing beside his 9-meter (29.5-foot) black glass statue, which weighs nearly 3 tons, hangs above the central nave of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, located off Piazza San Marco in Venice. Titled “Human Comedy: Memento Mori,” the statue is the centerpiece of the Ai exhibit at the church that opens on Sunday.
The massive hanging artwork is part chandelier, part bone, with intricately suspended glass skeletons and skulls, both human and animal, balanced with glass-embossed human organs and scattered likenesses to the Twitter bird logo and surveillance cameras, a hint of the darker side of technology.
“We see the environment completely disappearing, being destroyed by the efforts of humans…and that will lead to a much greater disaster or famine. Or war, there is a potential political conflict between China and the West as China asserts greater control over Hong Kong and threatens to take over Taiwan,” said Ai.
“We have to rethink human beings and legality in the environment. Do we really deserve this planet, or are we just shortsighted and racist? Selfishness is very demanding of itself,” the artist added.
The gallery also features smaller glass sculptures. One of Ai portrays himself as a prisoner, referring to the months he spent in a Chinese prison in 2011. Another superimposed his disfigured face on a replica of an 18th-century statue titled “Allegory of Envy.” A wooden tree-stump figurine fills the cupboard. Hard hats Stained glass preserves places in the choir.Replicas of Lego-brick art of famous paintings and Chinese zodiacs line the walls of adjacent rooms.
Ai said he believed the Russian invasion of Ukraine gave Chinese authorities a “potential model” for understanding how such a process could occur in Taiwan, without serving as encouragement or warning.
“I think China is part of the global power struggle that reflects our modern understanding and the classic notion of who has the right to do what,” he said. “What is happening in the Russian conflict and Ukraine gives China perhaps clear mental training about what they want to do in Taiwan, if necessary.”
But the artist says any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a mistake and misunderstanding of Taiwan’s history.
The Chinese believe that Taiwan belongs to China, but in fact, China and Taiwan have been separate for more than 70 years. He said they have their own social structure, which is more democratic and more peaceful than in China. Any moves by China to claim Taiwan by force will lead to the “final struggle”.
He sees the struggle in China as a struggle for the legitimacy of the control of the authorities, while the challenge in the West is the constant need to defend democracy and with it freedom of expression. The Achilles heel of the West, he said, is its economic dependence on cheap manufacturing in China.
“That’s why China is so confident in that,” Ai said. “They know that the West cannot live without China.”
He cited instances of Western hypocrisy, including festivals in Europe and the United States rejecting films he made during the pandemic depicting the first lockdown in Wuhan and the struggles in Hong Kong.
After praising the films, Ai said, festivals eventually give “the last words, we can’t show them,” for fear of losing access to the Chinese market.
He said that his artwork travels more smoothly, because his artistic language is more difficult to interpret.
“My work is about new vocabulary, so it is difficult for someone who has absolutely no knowledge. Ai said it requires study. I don’t make a piece to please the audience. But I always want to say something necessary.”
Tourists walking around from the water bus were glad to have found an exhibition of the famous dissident artist.
“It’s metal? When I first saw this I thought it represented Hell,” said Kenneth Cheung, a Hong Kong citizen now living in Toronto, Canada, as he inspected the majestic glass sculpture. “Being in a church, it is stronger and more powerful.”
The master statue took three years to complete with the help of artists in a Murano glass studio using three techniques: traditional Murano blown glass, wax molds, and injection moulds. Studio owner, Adriano Beringo, said he has followed Ai for years to secure collaborations with an artist he respects because of his strong political beliefs.
“His face shows. He doesn’t hide. He’s willing to risk his life, and he did so in China,” Beringo 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 you’ll buy it, Beringo said.
“It must be a big museum. Otherwise, how can you keep a work of art like that?” he said.
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