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The freshly opened Pérez Art Museum in Miami delivers a dramatic statement before you even go through its doors to see what’s inside. The building’s architects, Herzog & de Meuron, have pulled out all the stops here: a huge exhibition space is garlanded with waterfront views, hanging gardens and a shaded veranda. Biscayne Bay twinkles on one side, while some of the city’s most august cultural institutions – the American Airlines Arena and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts – await the impact of the new kid on their block.
It promises to be healthy: the annual economic benefit of the PAMM is estimated to be around $11m. Miami is among the world’s leading exponents of regeneration-through-culture. Who would have believed, even 20 years ago, that the flaky turns of contemporary art would help rebuild blighted and desperate cities?
The museum’s first show is suitably significant. It celebrates the work of Ai Weiwei with a first major retrospective of the Chinese artist’s work. I am among those who believe that Ai is one of the most important artists working in the world today, for his rare ability to combine playfulness with social resonance, and formal experimentation with political comment.
Ai spent more than a decade in the US before returning to China to become one of the most acute critics of his homeland’s regime. He was arrested and detained for 81 days in 2011, and remains under constant surveillance by his government. Among his new works on show at the PAMM is a marble surveillance camera, which is both a beautiful object and a reminder of his plight.
Ai has not been able to see his own retrospective. He has been banned from travel since his arrest. “The police kept my passport when I was released; they told me that it would be returned after a year on bail, during which I have never received any formal charges,” he told me in an email interview shortly after the exhibition’s opening. “The bail expired in June 2012, but the police are still holding my passport. When asked, they would always say that it will be returned ‘very soon’.” But not soon enough for him to enjoy his own show.
The artist has, in recent years, had dozens of invitations from around the world to attend conferences, guest lectures and award ceremonies. But without the right to travel, he has been stymied, isolated from his peers. Now he can work only via Skype and email. “The limitations create a new way to communicate with the rest of the world, and we are getting used to it,” he says. “Thirty years ago, most people in China could not travel freely. I often think we have time-travelled and returned to that era.”
The art world broadly sympathises with Ai. Those who work within it realise that while contemporary art is enjoying the most improbable of booms, the values traditionally associated with it, such as the freedom to speak your mind, are not. Strangest of all, some of the states with the greatest fascination for the art world are those in which civil liberties are compromised: China, Cuba, Qatar. Expect an art fair to open in North Korea any day now.
Ai’s views on this paradox have always been, and remain, indivisible. That is what makes him so important. “The freedom of speech and expression is a common value of society and an essential property of art,” he says. “When the art community focuses and discusses these matters, both politically and philosophically, it shows an understanding and support for my situation and for other individuals who are affected by similar restrictions.
“China today has become a major player in the global economy and in politics, but as fast as it is growing, it is regressing in its state of humanity and its conditions for individual freedom.
“If this continues, China will lose its place in contributing to the significance of humanity. By denying human and individual rights, as well as the freedom of speech and expression, China will never have the creativity and imagination to gain any real competitive advantage on the international stage, but will remain an incapable and corrupted society.”
Miami’s glamorous new temple of culture carries a loaded message from Ai Weiwei. Politicians and business people remain for the most part nervous to criticise too boldly the restrictions imposed on the Chinese people. They are simply too mired in vested interest.
Art has a crucial role to play here. It’s not all about converting urban black spots into seafront cafés and fashionable shopping outlets. It asks the most basic questions of any society: are you able to take criticism? And can you answer back to your citizens with grace and humility? If not, then watch out: there will always be an artist around to tell the rest of the world; and it is listening more keenly than ever.
‘Ai Weiwei: According to What?’, PAMM, to March 16, pamm.org
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