‘Today I got my passport’ was the characteristically laconic statement that accompanied the selfie Ai Weiwei posted to his Instagram account on 22 July. For the previous four years, the Chinese government had prohibited Ai from leaving the country after they detained him at Beijing airport on 3 April, 2011, and confiscated his travel documents. He was subsequently held at an unknown site for 81 days by security forces, in retaliation for what was perceived as his uncompromising and increasingly overt criticism of the Chinese state. Ai was initially placed under house arrest upon his release, and then monitored around the clock, a Kafkaesque situation which the artist chose to channel into a series of provocative artworks.
In the intervening years, Ai’s confinement catalysed his status as a master of remote exhibition making. Major retrospectives at the Hirshhorn Museum, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Alcatraz and Blenheim Palace among others are evidence not just of his refusal to let restrictions on his mobility adversely affect his output, but of how demand for his work has undoubtedly been galvanised by his status as one of China’s most high profile and politically active critics. The opening of no less than four solo exhibitions in Beijing earlier this summer was therefore heralded as a significant milestone, suggestive not just of an easing of the capricious and opaque restrictions that have governed Ai’s presence in the Chinese public sphere, but also of a burgeoning domestic appeal that many critics claimed would never rival his international audience.
With Ai’s mobility restored, the news that he would be able to travel to the UK for the final installation and opening of his solo exhibition at the Royal Academy was met with much jubilation, not just on the part of the exhibition organisers – for whom Ai’s presence at a series of press events and public talks represents an unexpected boon – but also for a public eager to engage with the artist ahead of what is being billed as ‘the most anticipated art show of the year’. The celebrations were short lived, however, following the revelation that Ai’s initial application for a six-month visa had been rejected by the UK authorities, on the spurious grounds that Ai had failed to declare a previous criminal conviction for alleged tax evasion. An adroit and prolific user of social media, Ai was quick to post the offending letter to his 140,000 Instagram followers worldwide, resulting in a digital furore over the British government’s failure to champion human rights and decision to concur with China’s arbitrary judicial system ahead of Xi Jinping’s first official state visit to the UK this October. Whilst others claimed the incident was merely a result of bureaucratic incompetency, the resultant publicity eventually culminated in Theresa May rescinding the embassy’s decision and issuing Ai with a personal apology.
As China’s most outspoken artist, and one who has continuously railed against abuses of power (irrespective of their country of origin), Ai’s global recognisability and strident politics are often used as a cipher for homogenising the creative context of all contemporary Chinese art – a position that not only obfuscates the individual importance of his stance but more importantly our own embedded stereotypes of how and what we expect a ‘Chinese artist’ to be, or look like, or act or produce. Perhaps the more salient question is not ‘is Ai representative of all Chinese artists?’ but rather ‘why does he need to be?’ ‘Ai Weiwei’ at the Royal Academy affords us the opportunity to place certain preconceptions to the side and finally let the art do the talking.