Venice Biennale review: Ai Weiwei's S.A.C.R.E.D are scenes of abjection showing sublime craftmanship

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Sant’Antonin Church, 55th Venice Biennale

A Chinese woman in her early eighties arrived at the beautiful 7th century Venetian church to a flurry of press taking her photo on their camera phones. She is Gao Ying, the mother of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, 56, who can’t attend his own exhibition because the Chinese authorities confiscated his passport following his 81 day detention for “tax evasion” in 2011. 

Qui was visibly upset as she observed her son’s new installation, which she had never seen before. These six dioramas – scaled-down scenes that recreate the exact interior of his cell – show with grace and anger the  daily humiliations of Weiwei’s life as a political prisoner. 

The artist has stated that his experience still gives him nightmares. The works were made over a year and a half as a way of overcoming the trauma of incarceration. Including doll-like sculptures of the artist himself and the green uniformed prison guards who watched over him, they are exquisitely rendered yet not life-like enough to appear real. Weiwei is pointedly reminding the viewer that what he or she is seeing is a fake. This too is a political statement – Weiwei is in the business of busting illusions and exploding myths.

Each diorama is housed in a large two and half ton iron box. The viewer must step on a block and peer inside in order to look at the scenes. This creates a sense of voyeurism – the viewer is made complicit in the guards’ surveillance of Weiwei. To look at these works is to become a peeping tom, a pseudo-spy in the service of – what?

It is the contrast between the physical vulnerability of Weiwei and the sterility of his surroundings that makes these works so powerful. In Cleansing (2011-2013), a figure of the artist can be seen showering while two guards look on. They are fully clothed while he is naked, which dramatizes the power imbalance. The water that runs out of the tap is a thick, yellow, and mucus-like – even the act of washing is contaminated. These are scenes of abjection, but they are executed with a sublime craftsmanship.

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