NORTH TRURO — “Rebar and Case,” Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, springs from the moment when his practice slammed into the brick wall of the Chinese government.
Last weekend, the internationally known artist and political activist was in town for the show’s opening, staying at a cottage here. It was another leg on a journey from his home in Berlin that included stops in Bangladesh, where Ai visited what’s been called the world’s largest refugee camp, and Aspen, Colo., where he’d been feted at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. In Provincetown, his show marks the 50th anniversary of the Fine Arts Work Center. He estimated that he’d traveled 150 times in the last three years.
Perhaps he’s flush with freedom. In China, Ai had his passport confiscated for several years, and that was the mildest punishment he endured. His passport was returned in 2015. When he left China, he says, “My mom said, ‘Never come back.’ ”
Ai, 61, grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, when millions of people were persecuted, tortured, and killed. He knows hardship. The year he was born, his father, the poet Ai Qing, was detained, and the whole family was sent to a labor camp. The artist grew up in detention.
“I was excluded from the mainstream. It put me in a position to see from a different angle and to survive,” Ai says, “like a tree that can grow from a rock.”
In 2008, Ai was at the top of the art world in China. Beijing was preparing to host the Summer Olympics. Ai had helped design the central stadium, called the Bird’s Nest.
That May, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake shook Wenchuan, a district in Sichuan province. More than 69,000 people perished, including children in schools that had been poorly constructed.
“In China, you’re a farmer and you’re dead, because you built a structure not strong enough, and not regulated,” Ai says. But the schools were another matter: They were supposed to be safe. Construction standards had not been met. Some of the building materials used were derogatorily called “tofu dregs.”
“Not right rebar, not right concrete,” says Ai. “So much corruption.”
Parents grieved, and Chinese officials responded with silence. They wouldn’t reveal how many schoolchildren had died. They wouldn’t list their names.
“I don’t know why they avoid it,” the artist says. “It’s facts.”
He was undone, and furious. In March 2009, Ai urged volunteers to go door to door in Wenchuan and solicit the names and birthdates of children killed in their classrooms. They counted more than 5,000 of them. He started publishing names of the dead on his blog.
“It was before the Chinese government knew how to control the Internet,” he says. “I was extremely active. I could cause a daily riot.”
Ai also surreptitiously purchased tons of twisted rebar salvaged from the schools. “Rebar and Case” features marble versions of the mangled rebar, and casket-like boxes fashioned with traditional Chinese joinery from huali wood. The boxes are made to fit the misshapen marble pieces, some of which sit on top of their containers like holy relics. Others remain sealed inside.
“It’s a spiritual commemoration of these unknown individuals,” says Michael Roberts, executive director of the Fine Arts Work Center. “At the same time, we don’t know whether the boxes are holding something precious, or something for discard.”
The government shut down the artist’s blog in May 2009, but he continued to make work that needled officials. Later that year, he was beaten by police and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. In 2010, the government threatened to demolish his newly constructed studio, and he was placed under house arrest. In April 2011, he was arrested and imprisoned for 81 days on charges of tax evasion. Once released, he was prohibited from leaving Beijing.
“I’m very lucky,” he says. “I could have easily spent years in jail.”
Always, he kept working. Even while incarcerated, with no writing materials and his cellphone confiscated, he memorized every detail of his surroundings to re-create later as dioramas.
His assistant, Darryl Leung, started working with Ai in 2014.
“His studio was in a village, and there were a battery of surveillance cameras outside,” says Leung. “He hung traditional red Chinese lanterns marking all the cameras. It seemed festive, but a little sinister.”
As a conceptual artist Ai is subversive, a prankster and a humanist, working in many mediums. Just as weighty as his output, though, is his connection to his public. The Internet has fueled his career, his renown, and in China, his infamy.
“Without the Internet, I would maybe open a restaurant in Beijing,” Ai muses. “Or practice architecture.”
Then he pauses. “Without the Internet, I would never have a chance to fully express my ideas.”
He’s aware of the power he wields, but his demeanor is modest. When having his picture taken, he suggests posing in the Truro cottage’s tiny bathroom, seated on the toilet.
“I always think the bathroom deserves better exposure,” he says.
It reminds him of his late father, who cleaned toilets in his days of hard labor.
Still, like Andy Warhol, Ai’s place in the world is as potent as his artistic output, and fame is tricky.
“We always have to question our positions. To try to be truthful,” he says. “To ask: What is the truth?”
At a moment when the truth seems to be at the mercy of those in power, his question prompts others, like: How should citizens respond when government officials lie and obfuscate?
“My only advice is to act,” Ai says. “Each individual must believe in humanity, in the good of our children and other people’s children. To see humanity as one.”
In Bangladesh, he visited a camp where stateless people have pitched tents. He’d been there before. In 2017, he made a documentary film, “Human Flow,” about the refugee crisis. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees driven from Myanmar have poured in, and the size of the camp has ballooned.
Banishment, fear and hatred, and temporary settlements. No wonder Ai thinks of his father cleaning toilets. “My story,” he says, “is only a continuation of his.”
AI WEIWEI: Rebar and Case
At Hudson D. Walker Gallery, Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown, through Aug. 30. 508-487-9960, www.fawc.org