Ai Weiwei's art moves mother to tears at Venice opening

When a mother views scenes of her son's imprisonment, sometimes no words are needed. Tears will do.

Painstakingly reproduces conditions of Chinese activist-artist's 2011 detention

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's mother, Gao Ying, stands next to one of the six dioramas comprising his installation S.A.C.R.E.D., being shown alongside the Venice Biennale on Tuesday. Chinese authorities prevented the activist-artist from travelling to Venice for the opening, so his mother came instead. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)

When a mother views scenes of her son's imprisonment, sometimes no words are needed. Tears will do.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was prevented by Chinese authorities from travelling to Venice for the opening of two of his new works on the sidelines of the city's Biennale contemporary art show, so his mother came in his stead.

The activist-artist's elderly mother, Gao Ying, viewed for the first time on Tuesday a series of dioramas depicting six episodes of intense pressure during her son's 81 days in detention in 2011.

Gao walked quietly through the exhibit, peering through openings in the 1.5-metre high boxes — inside which the artist had reconstructed in great detail scenes of his captivity. His mother did not speak to journalists who documented the moment, but she was moved to tears as she left the exhibit in the church of Sant'Antonin.

The two events, both site-specific to the Venice spaces in which they are being displayed, are emotionally linked.

Ai constructed the piece Straight to be installed in a former convent on Giudecca island in the Venetian lagoon. The piece is made up of about 136 tonnes of steel rebar that was removed from the ruins of Chinese schools that collapsed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed nearly 5,200 children. Many have blamed shoddy construction practices and outright building fraud for the children's quake deaths.

Ai and his team spent two years straightening the pieces of steel. He then arranged them lying flat, one on top of another, to create a new topography inside the Le Zitelle complex, a room where orphan girls once sewed.

Another version of the piece — less than half the size of the one in Venice — was presented at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. last year; this one will tour North America after leaving Venice.

"He is making something right that was wrong," said Maurizio Bortolotti, who curated the two collateral exhibits. "I think it is very symbolic. Every piece has seen a human and moral distortion."

Activism led to detention

It was Ai's political activism highlighting corruption in the aftermath of the 2008 quake that drew the ire of Chinese authorities and lead to his detention in April 2011. That included a project to gather the names of all the children who perished as a sort of memorial, said Greg Hilty, curatorial director of the Lisson Gallery in London that collaborated on the Venice projects and which has long worked with Ai.

Bortolotti said the first installation, called S.A.C.R.E.D., has its own iconography similar to of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the suffering of Jesus as he is led to be nailed on the cross.

"There is a sense of self-doubt. Weiwei didn't know if any moment could be the last. He wasn't tortured, but there was a process of trying to break him down psychologically," he said.

For the installation, Ai constructed six containers in half-scale, recreating scenes from his detention, each revealing the constant surveillance to which he was subjected.

Inside six metal boxes, which on their own are a form of minimalist sculpture, Ai created scenes showing himself carrying out the routines of prison life, often with two guards watching. Visitors peer inside through one small window fitted with a fan that he recreated from life, or from openings on the ceiling to provide visual access where none existed.

In one scene, he sleeps with guards at his head and foot. In others, he sits on the toilet, he showers naked, he walks briskly for exercise and he eats. In the final box, he is handcuffed and being interrogated.

"The two projects are very connected. This is the consequence of the first," said Bortolotti.

It was Ai's heightened sense of perception, acquired under constant watch, along with his artist's eye that allowed him to recreate in painstaking detail his prison cell, down to the cracks on the walls, Bortolotti said. In the piece, there is a small bathroom with a stained sink and toilet and a spigot from the wall for a shower. Detergent and soap line the wall.

Depicting the cell, Ai built a bare mattress bed with a folded blanket, a table and two straight-back chairs and another with arms. In the closet, there are seven hangers with clothes, folded items and a spare pair of slippers.

The door has the number 1135, which he could see only after he left the cell, Bortolotti said.

Although free, Chinese authorities denied Weiwei a visa that would have allowed him to travel to Venice for this week's openings.