Ai Weiwei Unveils His First Display of Glass Sculptures in Venice

No. It’s not about making pretty pieces, says Ai Weiwei. art newspaper From his home in Lisbon. It refers to his huge glass work human comedy—One of the largest hanging Murano glass sculptures ever created. It’s the centerpiece of a new display of 32 new and modern sculptures by the dissident Chinese artist, erected in a 16th-century chapel on Venice’s San Giorgio Maggiore island.

About 6 meters long and 9 meters high, the giant glass statue, which looks like a black chandelier, features 2,000 hand-blown glass pieces, including human skulls, skeletons, internal organs, bones, crabs, bats and surveillance cameras. It weighs 2,700 kg, and its title refers to Dante’s epic poem from the 14th century Divine Comedy. Although work on the sculpture began before the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a tribute to the many lives lost during this time.

Ai Wei human comedy (2022) installed in the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore. Photo: Francesco Allegrito

“The theme of the show is death. The chandelier consists of skeletons and bones of humans, animals and mysterious animals. It is also about humanity,” says Ai. “Death always accompanies us. But we don’t like to admit it – we tend to think of it as something that happens to other people.”

This is the first time that Ai has organized an exhibition of glasswork, a medium for which he is not famous. The show is the result of a three-year collaboration with Berengo Studio on the Venetian island of Murano, where a lot of Murano glass has been produced over the past few centuries.

For three decades, the studio, run by founder Adriano Berengo, has been working with artists from around the world to implement projects in glass. “Ai has always known how to sabotage and play with power structures and this business is no different,” Beringo said in a statement. He began a smaller collaboration with the artist when he visited him under house arrest in Beijing.

Details from Ai Weiwei human comedy (2022)

But it’s not the first time the 64-year-old artist has worked with glass. “I am a collector of ancient artifacts from China. So I have a long history of dealing with antique glasses. Included in the show was his work in 2009 The study of perspective in glass, a glass LED figurine with her middle finger extended. “Glass is a fragile and precious material. In ancient Greek tombs, glass was used to make tear bottles containing the tears shed by the living for the dead,” says the artist.

The exhibition also includes remains (2015), which resembles an archaeological site and consists of ceramic copies of human bones excavated at the site of a labor camp operated under Mao Zedong in the late 1950s. “The human bones belong to my father’s generation. There are a lot of exiled intellectuals who were just [left for] Ai says, referring to China’s 1958 anti-right campaign, which culminated in the purge of thousands of intellectuals, including the artist’s father, the famous poet Ai Cheng.

Ai Wei The study of perspective in glass (2009)

Elsewhere in the gallery, the sprawling sculpture glass root Shows the root system of the ancient Pequi tree, an endangered species in Brazil. The roots are left over from deforestation and natural causes. In order to produce cast iron replicas, wood carvings were shaped. The work gained additional importance given that Aye’s father had written a poem about how trees communicate with each other underground. From the age of ten, Ai lived in a bunker with his father.

Memories of his father are central to another exhibition that Ai is participating in this year. He’s coordinating a display of works created by prisoners and people across the UK’s criminal justice system at the Southbank Center in London this fall. He said, “All of this work allowed me to try to understand how people behave in places limited by criminal punishment.” The artist says he is well prepared given his life experiences with the penal system. The artist’s father was sentenced to six years in prison in the 1930s, Ai himself was held in secret for 81 days by Chinese authorities in 2011.

“Also in the British prison, I visited Julian Assange, who remains in the safest prison in Britain for no reason other than as a political prisoner,” he says. In June, the co-founder of WikiLeaks was extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States with the approval of the British authorities. If convicted by a US court, he could be sentenced to 175 years in prison. It is clear that Ai is not slow to present political works that show the tension between freedom and liberty. For him, the decisive role of the artist is to push boundaries, however risky they may be.

“If you see a boundary, the first thought is to cross it; to be on the other side. This is of course dangerous and can cause harm. Mass assumption cannot do what one’s mind wants. But unfortunately, as an artist, that’s what we think is very important. Do: Get over this uncertainty, and tell people to be creative. It’s dangerous, but necessary.”

• Ai Weiwei’s La Commedia Umana: Memento Mori, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, until November 27, 2022

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