Riyas Komu picks out installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei which speaks about torture

“What can they do to me?” asks Ai Weiwei.

“Who is afraid of Ai Weiwei?” sprays a young woman on city buildings in Hong Kong. You can hate him or love him but you can’t ignore Ai Weiwei.

For the Chinese government, the iconoclast artist is perhaps the biggest thorn in their flesh. The one they have tried many times, and still do, to remove but it hurts them as every attempt touches a raw nerve.

Ai Weiwei keeps the Chinese government on its toes and the world informed by documenting his life through visuals and a popular blog, turning his life into a telling work of art and political intervention. The way the regime tortured one of the world’s most outspoken artists and critic of Communist regime has become a powerful work of art at the Venice Biennale this year.

The site-specific SACRED, second in his Zuecca Projects, is a collection of tableaux reenacting the horrendous torture Ai went through in police custody when he was arrested in 2011.

The collateral work at the Venice Biennale consisting a few chambers on the altar of Sant' Antonin Church are made with metal sheets, and one can look through the holes to see the sculpted images of Ai in police custody. The work displays a painful narrative of his sufferings inside claustrophobic prison cells.

The arrest of Ai two years ago at Beijing airport under “inciting subversion of state power” had triggered a global wave of protests and calls for freedom of expression. The Chinese authorities also raided his studio in an anticipatory, preemptive measure against what he could do to instigate something similar to the Jasmine Revolution in the Arab World. While artists’ community staged protests, many governments including Germany, America and Britain joined free-speech movements. Petitions and protests statements flooded online and a Free Ai Weiwei website was created.

Tate Modern wrote “Release Ai Weiwei” in huge letters along its exterior. Well-known artist Anish Kapoor dedicated his Monumenta exhibition, which happened at Paris's Grand Palais, to Ai Wei Wei. Salman Rushdie wrote a letter to press. Noted Italian artist Giuseppe Stampone, who took part in Kochi-Muziris Biennale, did a six-foot sign ‘Bye Bye Ai Weiwei’, along a canal in Venice, that caught the attention of many.

But all through the chaos and tension, Ai remained unperturbed and determined not to throw in the towel. Threat from authorities was not new to him. “What can they do to me? Nothing more than to banish, kidnap or imprison me. Perhaps, they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air, but they don’t have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both joy and the ability to fly,” he had written in his blog in 2009 when he was harassed by the Chinese police and his bank accounts were investigated.

It is this determination to be outspoken that is reflected in the recent work in Venice as a relentless protest. Most of the project revolves around the realities of present day China, its human rights violation and freedom of expression.

Ai is known internationally for his work reflecting present-day China and his concern for human rights and freedom of expression. His life and art practice are an example of legitimate social criticism and free expression both in China and around the world.

The Venice collateral evokes interests and memories of the long historical relationship between Beijing and Venice founded on trade as well as religious and cultural exchanges.

But then, with Ai’s reenactment of the torture he suffered at the hands of Chinese authorities, and placing it in a church building in Venice juxtapose the contradictions between the contemporary realities in Chinese society and the artist’s interpretation of them.

Around eight million Chinese are held in prisons or camps, many suffering torture or enduring forced labour. More suffer death penalty each year– about 5,000 – than the rest of the world put together.

And, Ai Weiwei will not be silent. He cannot.

(Riyas Komu is an artist and Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation secretary)