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For Boston, a crash course in Ai Weiwei’s art and activism

People walk underneath a piece by Ai Weiwei called, 'Snake Ceiling' at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last month.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Boston is about to have an Ai Weiwei moment.

Starting next month, the Chinese dissident and international art star will have three massive sculptures on view in Boston — one on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and two others as part of the Museum of Fine Arts’ upcoming group show “Megacities Asia.” It is a rare chance for Bostonians to take in the sweep of this important artist’s work — a blend of conceptual art and social activism that has tackled subjects from human rights and urban growth to the nature of authenticity.

“It’s a great accident,” Lucas Cowan, public art curator for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, said of the simultaneous displays.


“Quite frankly, it’s just kismet — fantastic kismet,” agreed MFA assistant curator of contemporary art Al Miner.

In late April, the Greenway will unveil Ai’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” a series of 12 monumental bronzefigures from the Chinese zodiac, facing outward around the park’s popular Rings Fountain. Starting April 3, the MFA show will present “Snake Ceiling” and “Forever,” two large sculptural works that use backpacks and bicycles to raise pointed questions about China’s rapid urbanization.

Meanwhile, a fourth work by the artist, the large video installation “258 Fake,” is now on view at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge. Using 12 monitors to display more than 7,500 photos, “258 Fake” explores the relationship between truth and fiction — and how our perceptions of them can be manipulated.

Workers install Ai Weiwei’s 'Forever' at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“They draw from my experiences,” Ai said of the sculptures via e-mail. “[T]he works relate to my concern for the human condition, the status of an individual in a society, and the struggle for human rights.”

An unyielding critic of the Chinese government, Ai, 58, has repeatedly found himself in direct opposition to the Chinese state, which has sought to minimize his impact in recent years, detaining him and suspending his passport. Nevertheless, the artist’s high-profile plight has helped transform him not only into an art superstar, but also into a broader cultural symbol of the struggle for human rights.


“He has a voice that goes beyond that of a maker of objects and images,” said Miner at the MFA. “He is a figure, a character, and a persona in a world that’s very much enraptured with these public personas.”

Such weighty issues might not be readily apparent from a quick look at “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” whose dramatically rendered figures are likely to appeal to children splashing in the Greenway fountain.

Depicting a dragon, dog, rooster, and the like, Ai’s zodiac heads are based on an 18th-century fountain clock that once stood in the gardens of Yuanming Yuan, the Summer Palace in Beijing. Designed by an Italian Jesuit who served in the imperial court, the 12 original figures were looted during the Second Opium War in 1860, when French and British troops sacked the palace.

Though seven of the heads have been repatriated to China, the other five remain missing. With his interpretation, Ai’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” is thus both replica and original.

“There’s the face value of the work as an image of the Chinese zodiac, but there are deeper meanings, too,” said Cowan, who organized the exhibition in conjunction with AW Asia, an organization that champions contemporary Chinese art. “You can take it to [refer to] repatriation of cultural objects. You can take it to [comment on] what’s fake and what’s original in artwork.”


"Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” the first major public sculpture installation by contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, formally opened in May 2011 at New York’s Pulitzer Fountain. STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images/File/AFP

The figures are larger than the 18th-century pieces, standing roughly 10 feet tall, with some weighing more than a ton. They are but one of several bronze sets of “Zodiac Heads” that have been on world tour since 2011. (Ai also created smaller versions in gold.) Previous stops have included the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and the Louvre. The Greenway exhibit will mark the artwork’s first stop in New England.

“It’s very joyful to see them all together,” said Ai, who added that the looting of cultural objects continues. “If you look back on history, everything that has happened before is still happening today. We have not gone very far. Our character, our imagination, and our fears have not changed that much.”

Ai Weiwei met with media last month in front of the Trade Fair Palace in Prague. Matej Divizna/Getty Images

Ai’s “Snake Ceiling” and “Forever,” on view at the MFA, are more pointedly political works. He created “Snake Ceiling,” for instance, to commemorate an estimated 5,000 Chinese schoolchildren who perished when their government-built schools collapsed during a 2008 earthquake. Crafted by stitching together 350 identical black-and-white backpacks, the serpentine, ceiling-mounted work is meant to evoke children heading to school — and perhaps the danger of a growth-hungry state.

“In this push to build more and faster — at least in Ai Weiwei’s opinion — construction can be done poorly or cheaply, and the results can be tragic,” said Miner, who cocurated the show with Laura Weinstein, a curator of south Asian and Islamic art.


Like “Snake Ceiling,” “Forever” draws on Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the “ready-made,” or found-art object. Created with interlocking bicycles (originally made by the Shanghai Forever Co. Ltd.) that form a circular latticework, “Forever” is part of a larger series Ai created in response to Beijing’s explosive growth.

“Beijing was a city with flooded streets — bicycles atop of bicycles atop of bicycles,” said Miner, who notes in the show’s catalog how “the working class that once dreamed of Forever bicycles now aspires to own cars.” “Now its streets are flooded with cars. It comments not only on the change in modes of transportation, but movement in general.”

The Megacities Asia exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Chuck Choi/Courtesy Chuck Choi

Though Ai worked as an artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest,” before the 2008 Olympics — an event he later disavowed as propaganda — his politically charged work has often come at a personal price. He underwent cranial surgery in 2009 to relieve bleeding that he charged was caused by a police beating. Two years later, the Chinese government arrested Ai, detained him for 81 days, and seized his passport. His fortunes shifted last summer, however, when, after four years, the government unexpectedly returned his passport.

In the months since, Ai has immersed himself in the European refugee crisis, setting up a temporary studio on the Greek island of Lesbos and orchestrating a series of politically charged art events across Europe.

“He’s not an artist that paints a portrait and then sits back,” said Larry Warsh, a collector and friend who founded AW Asia. “He’s one of the most important artists today because of his ability to understand vast issues and actualize them in his art. Very few artists can do that.”


Ai Weiwei’s installation at the Harvard Arts Museum. Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.