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Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is an outspoken critic of China's human rights record. It is a stance that has frequently caused him to be the target of the country's security apparatus. This year, Beijing prevented him from traveling to Venice for the first exhibition of a deeply autobiographical work. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on Ai Weiwei's most recent installation, a detailed depiction of the period he spent in solitary detention.
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SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In a quiet corner close to a canal, Sant'Antonin is a typical 17th century Venetian church. But inside, the contrast between the paintings of old masters and the contemporary exhibit is stark. Under a baroque fresco of heaven, the pews have been replaced by six steel boxes, 5 feet high, 6 feet wide and 12 feet long.
Viewers must step on a block. And peering through a small slit on top of the box, they see lifelike dioramas of Ai Weiwei as a political prisoner inside a padded prison cell, always under double guard.
Manuela Astore helped organize the exhibit.
MANUELA ASTORE: You can see inside and each detail, each little thing, each bottle, everything is exactly how was the prison where he was closed. And he remember everything so clearly.
POGGIOLI: Outraged by the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed more than 5,000 children as school buildings collapsed, Ai Weiwei spoke out and denounced shoddy construction practices and corruption as the cause of the deaths. His activism angered Chinese authorities. He was arrested for alleged tax evasion and held in solitary detention for 81 days.
Once released, he decided to expose the authorities' methods by recreating his traumatic experience in painstaking detail. Ai told a reporter: I memorized every crack in the ceiling, every mark on the wall. I'm an artist and architect, so I have a good memory for these things.
The completed work was installed here in Venice by four technicians from the artist's studio. Inside the claustrophobic boxes, the fiberglass Ai Weiwei and his guards are shrunk to three-quarter size.
Over here we see Ai Weiwei sitting at a table and eating, with two guards watching over him. They're just practically touching him, observing his every movement.
The daily humiliations of cell block routines include intimate scenes of the prisoner using the bathroom and naked, taking a shower, while two fully dressed guards observe him from close proximity - a stark dramatization of the imbalance of power. The guards themselves were ordered never to speak with the prisoner.
Manuela Astore says the surveillance was obsessive.
ASTORE: Even though he has never been tortured by the guards - by the guardians - only the fact that he was never left alone, it was torturing by itself.
POGGIOLI: One of the most powerful scenes illustrates the prisoner's physical vulnerability.
We are looking down at Ai Weiwei, or a figure of Ai Weiwei, covered by a blanket, lying flat on his back with two guards standing just a few inches away from the cot, guarding him during the night - all night long, as he sleeps.
Excellently crafted, the dioramas provide a sense of dislocation and self-doubt. Ai has said he felt that any moment could have been his last. And the church setting for the exhibit is apt, the title of the installation is "Sacred." The work, Astore says, suggests the Stations of the Cross.
ASTORE: This work, "Sacred," is like a Via Crucis - like his passion, like Jesus Christ with his cross on the shoulder.
POGGIOLI: Under the guards' constant watch, the artist developed a heightened sense of perception that enabled him to create a hyperreal installation. And particularly poignant at a time of increased global concern over governments' secret monitoring of citizens' lives, Ai has turned the situation around, allowing the individual viewer to watch the guards.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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