Reflecting on the war and the massive refugee crisis it has created, Ai expressed fears for “our… so-called peaceful life since World War Two” “Suddenly we feel the… foundation is shaking of democracy and freedom,” he told journalists in Vienna Tuesday.
He was speaking at the Albertina Modern gallery where the show, “In Search of Humanity”, opens Wednesday.
While condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighbour as “unacceptable”, Ai expressed concern about increasing global divisions. A “Cold War psychology is not going to work”, he said.
The new exhibition, which he described as “critical and radical”, displays several works that are responses to the experiences of those fleeing war and persecution.
There is a striking arrangement of life jackets found on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, arranged around a giant crystal ball in a lotus-like installation.
That piece is also typical of the monumental nature of much of the work on show, which comprises more than 50 tonnes of material.
None of his previous shows, he said, had had such broad coverage of his work. It charts the evolution of his artistic work and political activism over several decades.
Dystopian dolls’ houses
What Ai calls the current “crisis of human rights and freedom of speech” is starkly portrayed in a life-size replica of the cell where he was held and interrogated after his 2011 arrest by the Chinese police.
A set of dioramas beside it depict scenes from his interrogation, like dystopian dolls’ houses.
Some of his more recent works, such as the treadmill used by his friend Julian Assange during his stay at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, are perhaps not the easiest to read.
Others however, pack a more direct emotional punch. A huge installation makes use of twisted rebars salvaged from a school destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people.
The work stands as a testament to the thousands of children killed when poorly constructed school buildings collapsed.
Irreverence and humour are also on display, such as in the series of photos of Ai’s famous middle finger directed at sites such as the ceremonial gate in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
They are arrayed beneath a four-letter word lit up in neon. He also makes extensive use of Lego as a medium — in one case to recreate the Saudi flag.
Instead of the Islamic profession of belief, the flag is emblazoned with the reported last words of journalist Jamal Khashoggi during his 2018 murder in Istanbul’s Saudi consulate: “I can’t breathe”. The show runs until September 4.