Photo by the author with permission from the Venice Biennale.
Art world movers and shakers have been busy for the last few weeks. New York hedge fund billionaires and Russian oligarchs, with their private jets and monster yachts, traveled between Art Basel Hong Kong and Christie’s in New York, where a half-billion dollars worth of art was sold on one night. Then many of them moved on to the Venice Biennale, which opened at the end of May.
This biennale, however, presents a kind of reproach to the glitz and glamour of Art Basel and Christie’s. The exhibition, which opened June 1 and runs thru November 24, features the world’s most famous artist, China’s Ai Weiwei, whose work here, two powerful solo exhibitions, is fiercely political. Roberta Smith of The New York Times called him an “eloquent and seemingly unsilenceable voice for freedom.” Chinese authorities, who had imprisoned him for eighty-one days in 2011, refused to allow him to leave the country to come to Venice to install this work. (For the opening, he sent his mother in his place.)
His new piece, exhibited here for the first time, consists of six large scale-model dioramas illustrating different elements of his eighty-one-day imprisonment. Each scene is inside a large black metal box, five feet high, with several viewing portals. Each portrays a different key moment of his daily life in prison. Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian described it best: “Here is a miniature Ai being interrogated; here a miniature Ai showers or sits on the lavatory while two uniformed guards stand over him.” In other scenes he is sleeping and eating—but “always in the same tiny space, always under double guard.”
The title of the piece, S.A.C.R.E.D., is an acronym referring to the six moments portrayed in the dioramas: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt.
The strange intensity of the scenes was explained by Greg Hilty of London’s Lisson Gallery, which is responsible for showing S.A.C.R.E.D. He told The Guardian that, for those eighty-one days, Ai had nothing to do but “memorise the minutest details of the tiny, featureless room in which he was kept.”
Only in Venice at the Biennale would this work be set in such a spectacular space: inside the deconsecrated church of Sant’ Antonin, built in the 1660s, with Baroque side chapels and paintings of saints—in the middle of which the six large black metal boxes look especially mysterious and menacing.