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Ai Weiwei and His S.A.C.R.E.D.

By Adela H. Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

Sant’Antonin in Venice appears to be a church no more. Instead of pews, six austere iron boxes stand in the center of the church. Weighing nearly two and a half tons each and measuring five feet by twelve feet, they immediately grab visitors’ attention. In the beautiful chapel adorned with frescoes and sculptures, the  boxes eerily resemble coffins. They are aptly named S.A.C.R.E.D, each letter standing for a different box’s theme: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, and Doubt. The mood is somber.

The piece was one of the exhibitions at the 2013 Venice Biennale by the well-known Chinese political dissident and artist Ai Weiwei. In 2011, in what many believe to be an attempt by the Chinese government to quell his revolutionary attitude, Ai spent 81 days in prison for alleged tax evasion. Once released, he set to work creating “S.A.C.R.E.D.,”  a six-stage installation that offers viewers his experience in solitary detention. Each box contains a diorama depicting Ai’s intimate moments spent in prison—sleeping, using the bathroom, and, of course, interrogation.

The scenes, which take the viewers through various stages of Ai Weiwei’s stay in the prison, create an atmosphere of discomfort. In one box, as Ai eats his dinner, two guards hover around him, recording every minute and benign move. Their blank faces yield no sympathy. In Ai’s portrayal, the guards become machines, only interested in controlling the dissident. In another scene, as Ai Weiwei sleeps with both of his arms and legs spread out, the guards stand ever-present at the top and the bottom of the bed. The entire scene is illuminated in harsh, fluorescent light. Underneath the white blanket that contours his body like a garment, Ai becomes reminiscent of Christ.

Perhaps even more unsettling than the art itself is the way the scenes are portrayed, which forces the viewers to become implicit in this flagrant violation of human rights. The doors on the boxes are merely part of the boxes’ façades. Instead, Ai has placed small apertures on the surfaces of the boxes so that the viewers must peer into the cells rather than walk through them. The viewers cannot do anything but passively observe and acknowledge the wrong.

In forcing the viewers to become complicit voyeurs, Ai may be criticizing not only the Chinese government  but also the inactive citizens—those who simply go along with the government’s agenda. “[Ai Weiwei] was watched all the time during his detention under obsessive surveillance at a very close proximity,” S.A.C.R.E.D. curator Maurizio Bortolotti says. “Through his dioramas he upturns this situation, making us, the viewers, [watch] the guards who are in turn watching him.”

Some may be tempted to criticize S.AC.R.E.D. for evoking an exaggerated portrait of martyrdom.  However, according to Greg Hilty of London’s Lisson Gallery, Ai is not trying to position himself as a martyr in S.A.C.R.E.D. “He is not pretending to be a saint, but the setting does suggest things such as the stations of the cross or the temptations of St. Anthony, to whom the church is dedicated,” Hilty, who is hosting S.A.C.R.E.D., says. “But these are human, universal things that go beyond Ai Weiwei...he’s not saying he’s a saint, or that he is wholly right or good. He’s just being honest.”

Overall, S.A.C.R.E.D. is a powerful work in that it forces viewers to confront the oppression of political dissidents in China by physically walking viewers through Ai Weiwei’s own experience. The audience will never know if the work was Ai’s way to defend his status as a genuine political dissident or if he solely wanted to convey a selfless political message. Nevertheless, S.A.C.R.E.D. still sheds light on the everyday repression of political critics in China. And it also gently reminds viewers that they must not remain mere viewers of oppression but must also take a stance against such violation.

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