I apologise for the headline. I’ve wanted to crack that terrible pun for a while and this month seems to be the best time to do it since Ai Weiwei is quite definitely the toast of the Venice Biennale of 2013. Ai has two exhibits at Venice, one at the German pavillion and the other is a “collateral event” titled “S.A.C.R.E.D.” at the Church of Sant’Antonin. He’s already been in the news for his map of China made of 1,815 cans of baby formula and this music video in which Ai recreates his 81-day imprisonment and also shows that he doesn’t necessarily have what it takes to be a drag queen. Incidentally, the video was shot by Christopher Doyle whose filmography includes Hero and In the Mood for Love. Basically, if he can’t make Ai Weiwei with lipstick and false eyelashes look good, no one can.  Cynics may have thought these were part of the warm-up to the biennale. Except considering “S.A.C.R.E.D.”, I don’t think Ai needed any buildup. This one’s enough to make everyone do a slow clap.

“S.A.C.R.E.D.” is made up of six massive boxes of iron, each weighing about 2.5 tonnes, that stand in the middle of the church that has been cleared of pews. They’re like giant coffins. There’s probably the plot of a fantastic blockbuster thriller in how Ai managed to make “S.A.C.R.E.D.” in China and then transported these elaborate works out of the country without the government cracking down on him. Back to the works: these seemingly-impregnable black boxes have a slit at one spot where you can put your eye and when you do that, you see a diorama in which Ai is a prisoner constantly flanked by two guards. He’s in the bathroom, he’s sleeping, he’s eating, he’s walking — and those two guards are always there; uniformed, expressionless, implacable. In this Financial Times article, Ai spoke about “S.A.C.R.E.D.” and said that when he was in jail, he kept thinking about his father who was jailed for three years in the 1930s. Ai’s father had trained as an artist, but because he couldn’t paint in jail, he began writing and became a leading poet. His poems were smuggled out of jail and they made him “the unofficial poet laureate of the fledgling Communist party.” Ai says in the interview to FT:

It was so important to him: it made him a great poet. And when I suddenly found myself sitting in a cell, I think I was a bit relieved. I thought: ‘Now at last, I am like you. I will use this time like you did.’ So, I memorised every crack in the ceiling, every mark on the wall. I am an artist and an architect, so I have a good memory for these things.

(Read the entire article here.)

There’s something tremendously menacing about this work. For one, there’s chilling horror of walking around in a beautiful church, around these large boxes, completely unaware of what’s contained inside. The parallel with what happens in China is obvious. In comparison to the imposing system, those imprisoned are little people who have been reduced to almost non-existence when they were plucked out of their everyday lives and thrown into these prisons that exist without being acknowledged. Then there are the two guards who are so, so eerie. They’re all the more unsettling because they don’t do anything. They’re not beating Ai up or frowning or anything like that. They threaten by simply standing there, a little too close. Imagine this routine and this solitude blanching out day after day. Imagine not knowing if you’re going to spend the rest of your life like this, out of sight of everyone but these two guards.

Just in terms of the photographs taken of the dioramas, I think the one I find unforgettable is the one in which Ai is sleeping, or trying to, in his cell, with his guards nearby and the one bulb still turned on. Under the shroud of the white sheet and on that slab of a bed, he looks almost like a corpse.

(See a slideshow with images from “S.A.C.R.E.D.” here.)

Ai’s concerted efforts to resist the Chinese government are inseparable from his determination to create a mythology out of his own life. There’s a lot of ego at play in his recent projects and at times, it gets a little monotonous and there are some works that get noticed only because they are Brand Ai Weiwei. Take the video “Dumbass” for example. I don’t know what the lyrics are but they’re going to have to be some serious kind of wonderful to make up for Ai’s inability to hold a tune. And just in case you thought this is a one-off, Ai’s planning an album with more ‘romantic’ songs that will talk about, among other things, Tibet. Great.

But despite being very much a part of Ai’s Hero Project, “S.A.C.R.E.D.” doesn’t seem to be just that. Rather than him as someone extraordinary, these figures show him as a non-celebrity because he seems to be living in mundane life in prison. It’s just that with those two guards there and in the confines of a prison cell, there’s no sense of what most of us would consider normal. Except our understanding of this comes from having more freedom. What happens if you begin to forget there is a world beyond that iron box? What is left of you when you are nothing more than everyday rituals like eating, showering and sleeping?

Who would have thought that little figures that are probably the size of action figures, placed in a elaborate dolls’ house-like set, could speak about dense ideas like individual freedom, the sense of self and the state of the Chinese nation? Of course, the dioramas in “S.A.C.R.E.D.” are powerful because of how beautifully crafted they are. It takes a moment to realise the figures in the photos are miniatures and not real people. From texture to expression, every detail appears to be carefully and perfectly rendered. And in a moment of characteristic Indian self-obsession, the first thing that I thought of when I saw “S.A.C.R.E.D.” was Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum. In its restored glory, it’s one of the most gorgeous buildings you’ll ever see. From the floor tiles, to the railings, the chandeliers, the ceiling, the museum is just exquisite. Then you see the exhibits. Technically speaking, they’re dioramas much like what Ai’s used in “S.A.C.R.E.D.”, except unlike Ai’s figurines, the ones in Bhau Daji Lad Museum look tacky, kitschy and downright silly. It’s as though someone took roughly-made clay toys from some random small-town or village vendor and stuck them in glass boxes. And there’s a model of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai for some reason.

Now, if you saw this stuff in the museum’s shop (which is quite good, by the way), it would make sense and the figurines would probably sell like hotcakes. However, they’re exhibits. Permanent exhibits. The reason they’re cringe-inducing isn’t just that the museum has chosen to treat its audience as a bunch of idiots who will be entertained by clay dolls, but that these diorama don’t actually show you anything memorable. There are no stories, no insights, no details that will leave you marvelling or horrified or moved in any manner. If you really want to sizzle with annoyance, you compare the crudeness of these “exhibits” to the sophistication of the contemporary art that the museum hosts. Thank heavens it does, because it’s a great space for art shows but it’s sad that what’s supposed to be the primary focus of the museum is treated so dismissively. When Mumbai’s only city museum cheerfully presents awkward clay figures of sadhus doing yoga poses and kids flying kites et al, we’ve got no business complaining about anyone else exoticising and/or caricaturing brown people. We’re doing a royal job of it ourselves with no help from any foreigner.

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