If sheer magnitude were enough to topple artistic repression, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s largest solo exhibition ever, Evidence, at Berlin’s Martin Gropius-Bau museum, would go a long way in bringing down the hammer. The event spans three decades of the dissident artist’s work, encompassing 32,000 square feet and 18 rooms of space, with art that is prohibited from being exhibited in his native China. (Weiwei himself can’t witness this milestone in his career, as the Chinese government has confiscated his passport since 2011, precluding him from traveling outside the country.)
The focal point of Evidence, which runs through July 7 in the German capital, is the overwhelming “Stools” installation, above, filling the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau with 6,000 antique wooden stools, some 400 years old and dating to the Ming dynasty. Like so much of Weiwei’s work, the meaning behind it is subject to many interpretations: is it an allegory about a lost way of life in the agrarian Chinese countryside? Or a rejection of the plasticized aspects of a modern consumer society?
Likewise, “Very Yao,” below, a labyrinth of 150 bicycles hung from a ceiling in the museum’s rotunda, is both a homage to the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp (whose Bicycle Wheel from 1951 was, ironically, mounted on a stool) — and perhaps a reference to a young Chinese man who suffered harassment at the hands of authorities after stealing a bike in 2007.
From Europe to the U.S, Weiwei’s prolific output will be center stage throughout the summer. New York’s Brooklyn Museum is hosting another exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What? through August 10, a showcase of his impact as sculptor, photographer, architect, and activist.
Even in absentia, a courageous artist’s powerful vision continues to bridge both cultures and continents.
(Photos: top: Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty Images; bottom: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)