6 Dioramas Depict Ai Weiwei’s Life In Captivity

The artist and activist creates some of his most political work yet.

In 2011, state police seized the artist and activist Ai Weiwei at the airport, threw a black bag over his head, and transported him to an undisclosed location where he lived under tight supervision for 81 days.


Now, it’s possible to see what happened during that time. Truthfully, not a lot happened. Which is why the dioramas he and a team of about 20 or 30 sculptors created are so eerie. It’s chilling to think about two young military men watching a man sleep. The guards also stood by, statue-like, while Ai ate, showered, and used the bathroom. Ai re-created these moments in minute detail, all from memory (he, of course, did not have a camera while captive), and the lifelikeness is startling.

The six fiberglass dioramas live within 2.5-ton iron boxes and are on display at a church-turned-art gallery for the Zuecca Project Space, in sync with the 2013 Venice Biennale. Ai had a sculptor friend and a staff on hand, but it’s a mystery to the public how he managed to transport the sculptures from China to Italy. In tandem with the exhibit, the artist also released a music video online that reenacts the detainment period, which Ai called the most difficult period of his life.

A quick survey of Ai’s most famous works of art reveals layers of metaphors. In 2010, at the Tate Modern in London he created a garden of ceramic sunflower seeds, and in 2011 his Forever Bicycles installation went up at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Both works nod to the collectivism of many people in one place and are tributes to the Chinese population of workers and manufacturers. His recent exhibition According to What? at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, DC, which publicized the fact that thousands of children were killed in the 2008 earthquake, also included a pile of plastic crustaceans.

This installation, by contrast, is uncannily literal. There’s no room for misinterpretation (especially if you watch the video), and there’s much less visual poetry than can be found in his earlier works. “People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle,” Ai told The New York Times. These pieces waste no time in instantly making the connection.

[h/t The New York Times]


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.