Italy’s first major retrospective dedicated to the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei opens 23 September at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Curated by Arturo Galansino, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi It will present an important insight into the body of work that Mr. Ai has created during different phases of his career.
Visitors to the Palazzo will be greeted by Reframe, an architectural intervention covering the 2 main façades of the building with 22 bright orange lifeboats. A project that draws the attention to the lives of the refugees who daily risk their lives to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The installation ensures a direct introduction to the practice of this dissident Chinese artist. Ai Weiwei is known worldwide as much for his challenging contemporary art practice as for his political activism. The full exhibition will chart the artist’s practice from the ‘80s to date, and will include key video works, assemblage and installation pieces from the past three decades, as well as present multiple new commissions including a new Lego portrait series.
Mirroring the artist’s relationship between tradition and modernity, key works will be hung in response to the architecture of the Palazzo Strozzi. The 15th-century palace was built as a political statement and is considered to embody the history of the city of Florence. The vast, five-ton work, Refraction, created for the exhibition on San Francisco’s Alcatraz island, will take over the palace’s courtyard. In the shape of an enormous metal wing, based on the structure of an actual bird, the work consists of reflective solar panels originally made for use as solar cookers in Tibet. This work becomes a metaphor for constraint, using the imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom and confinement.
The show will not only offer a marvellous opportunity to explore Ai Weiwei’s creative genius, but also to understand his personal narrative, offering critical insight into Ai Weiwei’s ambiguous relationship with his native China. In his works, Ai Weiwei plays with both the ancient and the contemporary, showing an ambivalent relationship with his own country, torn between a deep sense of belonging and an equally strong sense of rebellion through the manipulation of objects, images and metaphors of the Chinese culture, denouncing the contradictions between the individual and society in the contemporary world.
Ai Weiwei will be the first artist to exhibit across the entirety of the Palazzo Strozzi spaces, presenting a series of new and major works from the façade of the building and the courtyard to the piano nobile and the Strozzina gallery. Works on display will span from those created in New York during the ‘80s and ’90s, when he discovered his ‘masters’ Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, to the large iconic assemblages from the early 2000s consisting of objects such as bicycles and stools, as well as recent works such as his portraits of political dissidents built with Lego bricks
Of the exhibition, Arturo Galansino, Director of Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, said, “I have been working for almost a year to ensure that Palazzo Strozzi hosts the first major exhibition in Italy of the work of Ai Weiwei, one of the most iconic and influential personalities of our time. Ai Weiwei’s work, combining political activism, autobiography, and formal research as it does, speaks to us of major themes in a powerful, direct manner, using artistic vocabulary and tools that bestride East and West. Hosting a retrospective of this nature in Florence means viewing the city as a modern cultural capital, not simply pegged to the vestiges of its past but able, at long last, to play an active role out in the forefront of artistic developments in our own era.”
Over the past twenty years, Ai Weiwei has become a leading voice on the international art scene and China’s most famous living artist. Known for his political activism and meticulous artistic research, Ai Weiwei has also become a symbol of resistance against censorship. He notably initiated a series of actions and created artworks to denounce the Chinese government’s censorship of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, including the formation of a ‘Citizens’ Investigation’ into the earthquake, and the discovery and publication of the names of almost 6,000 children who died in the wreckage of poorly constructed schools. In 2009, his personal blog, which totalled 17 million views, was shut down by the authorities. In 2011, Ai Weiwei himself was arrested and secretly detained for 81 days. His passport was confiscated for the following four years, during which he was banned from travelling abroad. However, these constraints had little impact on his artistic creation and growing the worldwide reputation. He continued to show his work in some of the world’s leading museums and galleries, quickly becoming one of the most active and popular artists on social media, which he uses as a tool for sharing his artisti
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. In 1958, his father, the poet Ai Qing, was branded a ‘rightist’ and sent to Beidahuang, Heilongjiang, in north-eastern China, and shortly afterwards to the desert scrub of Xinjiang in north-western China. Ai Qing was rehabilitated after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the family was able to move back to Beijing, where Ai Weiwei enrolled at the Beijing Film Academy and became one of the founding members of the avant-garde Stars group. He lived in New York from 1983 to 1993, briefly attending the Parsons School of Design and discovering the work of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. In 1993, he returned to China to be with his ailing father and contributed to the creation of a community of avant-garde artists in Beijing’s East Village. He co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW), one of the country’s first independent art spaces, in 1997. He began to develop an interest in architecture, designing his own studio-house in Caochangdi, a north-eastern suburb of Beijing, in 1999. Ai Weiwei founded the architecture studio FAKE Design in 2003. Ai Weiwei’s work has been exhibited in leading museums, including Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts, London; Ai Weiwei@Helsinki at the Helsinki Art Museum; Evidence at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; and Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum of Art, Washington D.C.. He participated in documenta 12 in 2007, bringing 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for his Fairytale project. In 2008, he co-designed Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ national stadium with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. He covered the floor of the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds in 2010. Ai Weiwei was awarded the Human Rights Foundation’s Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2012, and Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015.
The exhibition is promoted and organized by the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi with the participation of the Comune of Florence, the Camera di Commercio of Florence, the Associazione Partners Palazzo Strozzi, and the Regione Toscana, with a contribution from the Banca CR Firenze and with the support of Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Le Moulin/Beijing.