Ai Weiwei hopes to set foot in the Royal Academy of Arts for the first time next year at the opening of his largest ever show to be staged in the UK. But only if the Chinese government can be convinced to return his passport.
The artist and activist has been unable to leave his native China since 2011, the same year he was made an honorary member of the RA, over his vocal criticism of the state’s stance on democracy and human rights.
Yet the 57-year-old remains hopeful he will be allowed to travel for the opening of the “landmark” exhibition, which mixes new work with some of his most notable pieces, in September next year.
The artist said he was “always positive” about getting his passport back but at the Venice Biennale his mother had to fly in to open the show in his place when he could not get permission to travel.
He told Tim Marlow, director of artistic programmes at the RA, who flew to Beijing last month to discuss the show, of his hopes of being at Burlington House in September: “I don’t see a reason why they have to keep my passport.”
Mr Marlow said: “Ai Weiwei has claims to be amongst the most, if not the most famous in the world but his art is not as widely seen as one might think,” adding: “He wants to show his work in great places.”
The Chinese artist currently has smaller exhibitions on in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and at Blenheim Palace but this marks the “first significant survey of Ai Weiwei’s artistic output,” the artistic programmes director said.
Ai Weiwei rose to prominence in the UK with his installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall of 100 million sunflower seeds made out of porcelain. It was then he got as far as stepping into the courtyard of the RA but never made it into the building.
He was arrested in China in 2011 and held for 81 days without charge, sparking global protest including a huge sign calling for his release at Tate Modern. The Chinese government released him but confiscated his passport.
Mr Marlow has his “fingers crossed” that Ai Weiwei would be present, he said, and is working with the artist’s studio via Skype and over social media to develop the work. Should his new pieces be prevented from leaving China, the RA “has contingencies,” he added.
Other upcoming exhibitions at the RA include the first UK exhibition devoted to 18th century Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard, and a show involving works by American Joseph Cornell.