Ai Weiwei keeps up fight for freedom as he opens National Gallery of Victoria show

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Only months after China handed back his passport, Ai Weiwei is in Melbourne and says the fight for freedom is still ongoing.

Dubbed China's most dangerous man, artist and cultural phenomenon, Ai Weiwei is a rock star of the art world. 

For the first time, hundreds of works by the Chinese dissident artist and the man who introduced pop art to the world, Andy Warhol, have been brought together at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Some of the most iconic artworks from the two artists are on display, including Warhol's prints of Marilyn Monroe and the Campbell's Soup Cans as well as Ai's Forever Bicycles installation.

Though the two men never met, senior curator at the National Gallery of Victoria Max Delany Max Delany said the link between the two artists is clear.

"Andy Warhol is one of the most significant artists of the 20th century often referred to as the American century, the century of modernity,” Delany said.

“Ai Weiwei is one of the most renowned artists living today in the 21st century era of contemporary culture and what is often referred to as the Chinese century to come." 

Warhol was clearly fascinated with Chinese culture: note his series of silkscreen prints of Mao Zedong and his 1982 visit to Beijing.

While Ai claims Warhol as one of his biggest influences.

“I am very happy to share my work with Andy Warhol, someone I admire very much,” Ai told SBS. 

Like his father, one of China's most revered poets - Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei's campaign for political expression means Chinese authorities are never far from sight.

In 2011, he was detained and interrogated for 81 days without formal arrest, and his Shanghai studio bulldozed.

This year he discovered listening devices hidden inside his Beijing studio.

“There are secret police, plain clothes police and even internet police in China,” he said.

“There are hundreds of thousands or even millions of people working on the internet, just watching every post and trying to delete or scare you away.”

An avid social media user himself, Ai concedes “censorship in China is stronger than ever”.

“It’s a very sophisticated system; I’m sure they will never let someone like me out of their sight or without their control,” Ai said.  

But he is certainly not afraid.

The 58-year-old admitted he has invited officers to his studio, to sit next to him and to observe his daily routine so “they can see there’s no conspiracy or secret”.

Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian recalls a similar experience after he was deported from Beijing last year for his artwork recalling the Tiananmen Square massacre.

"Every time I try to do new work in China, someone will ask me: ‘Why are you doing that?” or they try to change me," Guo said.

For more than four years, Ai Weiwei was banned from leaving China, until this July when his passport was finally returned.

It has given him freedom to spend time with his son in Berlin and travel overseas to see his other exhibitions.

One of the major works commissioned for the exhibition is the LETGO room, which features portraits of Australian activists who have championed human rights and free speech from Julian Assange to Michael Kirby.

It is an artwork Ai said hopes generates a lot of discussion.

“Human rights are essential values, like air or water. It’s not political, it’s human. It’s something that benefits everybody.”

Despite working against a backdrop of strict censorship in China, Ai’s hope for a better future for his homeland is unfading.

"This is the only way China can survive is to have an independent legal system, have free speech and have a very fair and justice in the society and this is inevitable." 

Source SBS News

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