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By Astrid Peeters

If tourists and Parisians choose to go to a museum instead of enjoying the first sun outside, you must be one hell of an artist. Is that how we can describe the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei (18 May 1957)? Nowadays everybody knows his name because of his deeds as a political, social and cultural activist. In April 2011, Ai was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities because of his activities. Released on bail in June 2011, Ai Weiwei is today still forbidden to leave the country. This makes the exhibition of photographs, the first important of him in France, the more interesting.

For example, the work ‘Shanghai Studio 2010-11’ makes it ambiguously clear how difficult the circumstances are to work. Early 2008 he was asked by the local government of Shanghai to build an art studio. Unfortunately, after the completion in August 2010, the Chinese authorities ordered, without a prior warning, to tear down the building. Ai suspects this decision was made in order to keep him close in Beijing, so they could monitor him on a more regular basis. In addition, his blog was shutdown by the Chinese authorities. Luckily, a part of his personal photographs and texts were already selected and safe for seizures. But unfortunately for us most of the pictures, ‘Blog Photographs, c.2005-09’ showed on a wall with screens, have no aesthetic value. If someone is fighting for his political and social rights, then it’s uncomfortable to see how many delicious meals he had while a lot of Chinese people are struggling (by the way, don’t go there if you’re hungry). While most of the exhibition impressed me, this part was disappointing; the turnover of the images and texts was so quick that it was impossible to focus on any of them (or was this his intention?).

Yet the exhibition gives a great first impression of the work of Ai and is worth a visit, especially his photographs during his New York and Beijing period starting in the 80’s. Whether in the ‘Beijing photographs, 1993-2002’, the ‘Provisional Landscapes, 2002-2008’ or ‘Earthquake, 2008-10,’ Ai shows us the massive changes in the Chinese way of life. This country can build a 15-story hotel in six days, a pivotal point of what makes the land and cityscapes of China ‘here today, but gone tomorrow.’ What we don’t see here are the millions of people who never make it into the photographs. Dear Mister Ai Weiwei, your message has been heard, but you may speak out louder.

Astrid Peeters, a Belgian PR student with a background in art history. She studies in Antwerp, Belgium’s unofficial fashion capital and tries to visit as many exhibitions as possible around the world.

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