Weiwei makes Bogotá debut with The Emperor’s Banquet


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The Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei is a monumental figure in contemporary art and subject of a landmark solo exhibition at La Cometa gallery in Bogotá titled The Emperor’s Banquet. The installation consisting of 12 works, each depicting a different animal from the Eastern Zodiac and constructed from LEGO, expresses the artist’s painstaking use of plastic to convey a message of cultural identity and appropriation in China.

Portrait of Ai Weiwei by Gao Yuan/ Courtesy Lisson Gallery (2014).

Weiwei’s colorful LEGO bricks in the Zodiac also evokes the work of Andy Warhol, artist also indelibly linked to American cultural iconography. Warhol, and conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, are key influences in the life of an artist who spent much of his childhood exiled to a hard labor camp in China’s north-west Xinjiang province, after his father, the acclaimed poet Ai Qing, was detained in 1957 during a purge of “rightist” intellectuals by the communist regime.

A poignant account of Weiwei’s years as an intern of “Little Siberia” is documented by the artist, former political prisoner himself, in a recent autobiography 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. The regime’s censorship of writers during the Cultural Revolution continues to this day with limited information access to Western internet platforms such as Google by the ruling party of Xi Jinping. Weiwei even had his Beijing studio demolished in 2018 by the local authorities, as he continues to be considered a cultural outcast to a government that restricts communications and artistic expression.

In an interview with Art Review’s Fi Churchman, Weiwei believes that “the most important thing I have done is to set up different ways of communicating social and political issues, and not just doing something that is self-indulgent, but rather to test if that expression really functions as a way of reflecting humanity and human dignity.”

In a challenge to the ideological canon that culture is a state-owned narrative, Weiwei’s The Emperor’s Banquet is based on a historical event when, during the Second Opium War in 1860, British and French troops destroyed the Zodiac Fountain inside the Old Summer Palace, looting the 12 bronze animal heads. China has recovered seven of these 18 Century antiquities, but the heads remain a source of deep-seated nationalist sentiment. By interpreting sacred patrimony as reproducible in LEGO, Weiwei adapts the traditional with the purpose of showing how a country famous for its counterfeit commerce of goods and lax copyright regulations continues to consider cultural dissent a crime.

In his ongoing struggle for freedom of expression, Weiwei more recently directed the documentary CoroNation that sheds light on China’s pandemic policing and bureaucratic operation to enforce a strict and uncompromising lockdown on the residents of Wuhan. The artist worked with amateur cinematographers to capture “stunning and terrible footage of a city plunged into crisis, organized under Ai’s pointed, critical vision,” highlights a review in The Guardian. Or in the words of the artist, author, film maker and political dissident, “to act on an idea is to make art, because the fight for freedom is part of freedom.”

The exhibition at La Cometa Gallery in Bogotá runs until March 30 and admission is free.

Galería La Cometa: Cra 10 No.94A-25


Richard Emblin
Richard Emblin is the director of The City Paper.

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