A Week for Weiwei in Florence

Ai Weiwei

“Free,” Italy’s first major show dedicated to Ai Weiwei will be inaugurated in Palazzo Strozzi on September 23.  Sculptor, conceptualist, blogger, and architect, he is recognized worldwide for his political activism and controversial contemporary art.

The inauguration of “Free” is concurrent with the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art Biennale which political activist Weiwei, a native of China, was banned from participating. Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, an exponent of the New British Sculpture movement with whom Weiwei walked side by side exactly a year ago in London to draw attention to the journey of refugees, was on the point of withdrawing his work from the Yinchaun Biennale, but in the end did not.

The pair intersects once more, this time in Tuscany.  The September 16 installation of Kapoor’s work Here and There (1987) at Prato’s Museum of Planetary Sciences is the prologue to the October re-opening of the Pecci Center for Contemporary Art.  Thematically connected to the upcoming Pecci exhibition, “The End of the World,” it is meant to mirror “the state of uncertainty which prevails on our world.”

Back in Florence, Ai Weiwei will be the first artist to take over the entirety of Palazzo Strozzi, with a collection displayed not only in the customary space, but also in the courtyard, the Strozzina Gallery, the Uffizi Gallery and the Mercato Centrale.

An installation by the artist has been placed on the façade of Palazzo Strozzi. Entitled “Reframe,” consisting of 22 orange life rafts attached to the windows of the grand Renaissance palace.  It represents the dramatic plight of thousands of refugees who risk their lives every day crossing the Mediterranean in hope of a better life in Europe.

“The façade deals with very contemporary issues and the condition of humanity today,” Weiwei explains. “I think it’s a great opportunity to reframe that condition and give it a positive understanding.”

The show will feature many key sculptures, as well as a series of photographs and videos. It will include work from his time spent in New York during the 1990s and 1980s, large installations from the early 2000s made up of everyday objects such as bicycles and stools, and his recent pieces including portraits of historic Florentine political dissidents created from LEGO. The latter, portraits of Dante Alighieri, Filippo Strozzi, Savonarola and Galileo, were assembled by students at the local Accademia di Belle Arti (Fine Arts Academy).

“I’m really excited to have the chance to hold one of my exhibitions in Florence,” he said at a press conference. “It’s a city with such great tradition.”

Weiwei is known for his outspoken political views. His art gained global prominence in 2011, after Chinese authorities detained him for 81 days for criticizing the government.

Since then, he has become a leading voice on the international art scene and China’s most famous living artist. This retrospective gives the Florentine public an opportunity to not only admire Weiwei’s iconic artwork, but also to explore his personal narrative, thought-provoking beliefs, and the messages that he conveys through his medium.

According to Arturo Galansino, head of the Strozzi foundation, “Weiwei’s work powerfully and directly expresses important themes, giving art back its strong social and political role.” He says, “this project represents a great opportunity to make Florence a modern cultural capital, actively participating in the artistic movement of today.”  (poppy jackson)