What is next for Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, one of the most influential artists of our time, is known for his bold and political statements captured through his art. He exemplifies his political convictions and personal poetry through sculpture, photography and public works. Who could forget the one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in 2010; produced by some 1,600 Chinese artisans. To Ai, the seeds were a metaphor for the downtrodden people of China.

So, what is next for the activist, documentarian and artist? He has been arrested, beaten and imprisoned after denouncing government corruption and lack of respect for human rights and freedom of speech in China. None of which stopped him. The ‘Freedom’ show, to be curated by Ai, will open this October at The Southbank Centre, organised by the Koestler Arts charity which promotes and sells works by UK’s incarcerated people. Ai said he wants the 2022 exhibition to be “the most ambitious yet.”

Ai’s work is a voice and he once said “As an artist, I can use my voice to give to somebody who is voiceless”.  This rebellious pattern – exploring both western culture and his own is drawn on his individual experiences. His father, Ai Qing, a famous poet, was labelled a ‘rightist’ and the family were exiled to Northwest China shortly after Ai was born. They were allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 where he then contributed to the establishment of Beijing’s East Village community of avant-garde artists.

Organisers of the exhibition stated, “The vision for the exhibition is inspired by the artist’s (Ai Weiwei’s) visit to the Koestler Arts building (next to HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in west London), which currently holds over 6,500 works entered into this year’s awards”. Having visited many prisons around the world, as well as experiencing his own restriction of freedom during a period of secret detention and constant surveillance in China, Ai’s visit to HMP Wormwood Scrubs helped to strengthen and confirm the vision for the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei has spent his summer visiting different prisons in the UK. “I hope that this exhibition can inspire people to reflect upon the loss of freedom and those that continue to create art to fight for space in life and freedom of expression despite adversity.”

This year is the 60th anniversary of the Koestler Awards, it is a prize initiative honouring the artistic achievements of detainees across the UK. Earlier this year, Koestler Arts invited people within the criminal justice system to submit artworks within the genres of art, writing, design or music. Entrants receive feedback and a select few will have their work exhibited publicly. The exhibition focuses on how influenced our reasoning and creativity is in life under constraint. Notable works of art and literature in history were created when the artist was restricted, oppressed and challenged. The language and feelings that emerge from these conditions can often be more profound, convincing and powerful.

Ai wanted the artwork to demonstrate how people can respond when placed in extreme situations. The exhibition space at the Southbank Centre will be transformed physically to realise this vision and help to preserve the environment within which the artworks are made. The aim is not to ‘translate’ the work but to retain the wholeness of it. Ai Weiwei explained this idea with a rather poignant analogy –  to present the forest, not just a branch that comes from it.