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Weiwei in the house

Ai Weiwei's 'Evidence' at the Martin-Gropius-Bau is now officially open! Whether or not he actually comes to Berlin is yet to be seen, his presence can be felt all over the exhibition. Here's what to expect.

Souvenir from Shanghai, 2014
Photo by Mathias Völzke

We’ve dissected the hype, but what about the art? Here’s a preview of Ai Weiwei’s huge solo exhibition Evidence, on view through July 7 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

”I still hope I can come to see the show and share the moment,” Ai Weiwei said in a video message at the press conference for the Evidence exhibition on April 2.

With his passport in the hands of Chinese authorities while investigations into his alleged and largely unspecified crimes are carried out, he has organised his largest show to date from his Beijing studio through the internet, directing a team of 20 people in Berlin led by exhibition curator Gereon Sievernich.

Walking through the exhibition, which takes up the entire ground floor with more than 30 unique artworks, you instantly see why Weiwei has a strained relationship with the Motherland. The concepts behind the pieces are just explicit enough to speak for themselves – and they speak volumes. His work is often overtly political and always has a personal offset. In 2008 the government of Shanghai invited the artist to build a studio in an effort to stimulate the local art scene, but later chastised him for his outspoken criticism by demolishing it without warning. Characteristically, Weiwei seized the opportunity to create Souvenir from Shanghai, a sculpture built from the remnants of the studio, in a display of creative defiance showing that he’s not so easily silenced.

Perhaps most notable is 81. On the outside the work is a wooden box, but the inside reveals a reproduction of the cell in which the authorities held Weiwei for 81 days in 2012. It allows the viewer to get a close look at the conditions that political dissidents are kept under. It’s not as convoluted as conceptual art from Western countries, which often rely heavily on intertextuality, but it’s undoubtedly more effective in getting the point across and invoking an immediate emotional response.

Other works examine the cultural clash between modernity and tradition. Traditional materials such as jade and marble are crafted into CCTV cameras and steel rods, commenting on surveillance and government cover-ups respectively, while Han Dynasty Vases sees antique vases covered in metallic car lacquer, obscuring the objects’ origins and value as a reference to Beijing’s asphyxiating smog and the booming car industry. All of his work definitely seems subversive in a Chinese context and while the curator has done a great job at making this accessible for a broader audience, it’s also the exhibition’s Achilles’ heel: with exhaustive explanations for each work, sometimes the presentation just seems a bit too patronising.

It still remains to be seen whether or not the dissident artist will pay Martin-Gropius-Bau a visit. Those with even an average knowledge about the Motherland’s methods would probably tell you it’s unlikely. But the show is so intimately personal that it hardly makes much of a difference anyway.

Ai Weiwei: Evidence, through July 7 | Martin-Gropius-Bau