Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013 (installation view, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, Venice as part of Disposition organised by Zuecca Projects and the Lisson Gallery)
Walking into a church in Venice and finding six large black crate-like boxes would be a fairly odd regardless but add couple of dozen other art lovers into the equation, wandering around the space and climbing on little black boxes to peer intently into the crates is a distinctly strange and somewhat unsettling experience. Like most churches in Venice, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, a fourth century building extensively reworked in the Baroque style in the mid seventeenth century, has a rather ornate interior. The austere black boxes that dominate the floor of the space are an incongruous sight; once one gets beyond the immediate visual confusion, the context raises some interesting questions.
When the 54th Venice Biennale opened in June 2011, Ai Weiwei had been under arrest in China for two months, his absence as powerful a presence in the art world as his work. Museums and galleries rallied; petitions were signed, posters hung and badges worn. Banners questioning Ai’s whereabouts or calling for his release hung from the galleries that represented him; his Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads sculpture was on show in London and New York, the Sunflower Seeds had only recently gone from the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. In Venice, Ai was largely absent; he had no work at the Biennale and was scarcely mentioned in any official capacity.
Somewhat confusingly (and, some argued, insultingly), his absence was acknowledged as part of a collateral exhibition by a large sign which read, in four foot tall illuminated letters, ‘Bye bye Ai Weiwei’ positioned prominently on the waterfront on Giudecca island, an, at best, ill-judged work by artist Giuseppe Stampone. Cut forward two years and, though still not allowed to leave China, Ai’s presence was rather more apparent at the 2013 biennale. And this time we got to see his work, some of it in the very building that sign stood outside two years ago, the Zuecca Project Space.