Daily Visual 30.07.15: Ai Weiwei and Facing History

A major Ai Weiwei retrospective will open at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on 19 September. Billed as ‘the first major institutional survey of his work ever held in the UK’ and looking back over two decades of his career, the retrospective – curated with collaboration from the artist – will also feature new works created specifically for the RA’s main galleries and courtyard. The show will run until 13 December.

However today Ai Weiwei was denied a six-month visa to enter the United Kingdom. In April 2011, he was arrested at Beijing airport on route to Hong Kong, saw his studio searched and computer equipment seized along with his passport, and was held for eighty-one days, during which time he alleges he suffered repeated interrogation and psychological abuse.

Released from detention but placed under surveillance, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Local Taxation brought a civil case against Ai. A fine of 15 million yuan ($2.4 million) was upheld in 2012. While more than half of this amount ($1.3 million) was deposited with authorities towards an appeal, the remainder stands unpaid. Though Ai served as artistic consultant for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he has been a frequent and resonant critic of the government’s record on human rights, and many believe his arrest and fine was politically motivated.

Just last week, Ai had his passport returned after more than four years. This theoretically allows him to travel freely, and he arrived today in Germany, which has hosted several of his recent exhibitions, where he plans to open a studio, and where his six-year-old son has lived since last year.

Yet his entry to the United Kingdom has been limited to a period of twenty days, on the grounds that he failed to declare upon application a ‘criminal conviction’ received in China. Ai posted the letter, sent by British immigration officials in Beijing , via his Instagram account:

Ai Weiwei letter

More than simply rejecting Ai his requested six-month business visa, the letter presents his allocated twenty-day visit as a kind exception, and ends threatening a ten-year ban should any subsequent application be deemed faulty. As Ai and others have pointed out, he was neither charged nor convicted of any criminal offence in China following his 2011 arrest.

The twenty days Ai has been allowed cover 9-29 September; but the artist has suggested that the denial of a longer visa may render him unable to supervise the installation of his solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also means that Ai will be gone from the UK in time for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in October: the first by a Chinese leader in ten years.

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Elsewhere, while the BP Portrait Award 2015 is showing at the National Portrait Gallery – its exhibitors selected from 2,748 entries, and heading after the show’s close on 20 September first to Edinburgh, and then on to Belfast – a smaller portrait exhibition opened this week at the V&A. Facing History will run in the museum’s gallery 88a all the way until next April.

Featuring paintings and photographs by Julian Opie, Grayson Perry, Maud Sulter, Ellen Heck, Gavin Turk, and Bettina von Zwehl, the exhibition offers an explicit engagement with past forms of portraiture: from Old Masters to miniatures and medals, and modern ephemera including posters and passport photos.

Ellen Heck’s coloured woodcuts depict her friends in poses suggesting the self-portraiture of Frida Kahlo. Grayson Perry contributes similarly-themed linocuts of his parents. And also on display is Tom Hunter’s 1998 photograph Woman Reading a Possession Order, whose composition echoes Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657-1659).


Update: On 31 July – a day after Ai Weiwei revealed that his request had been denied by UK Home Office officials in Beijing – Home Secretary Theresa May intervened to grant Ai a six-month UK visa. A spokesperson for the Home Office stated:

‘The home secretary was not consulted over the decision to grant Mr Ai a one-month visa (sic). She has reviewed the case and has now instructed Home Office officials to issue a full six-month visa. We have written to Mr Ai apologising for the inconvenience caused.’

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