The Chinese artist covers a cherished landmark in ‘refugee dinghies’
Conceptual artist Ai Weiwei has sparked controversy in Florence, cradle of the Italian Renaissance, with his biggest-ever exhibition, which includes an installation inspired by Europe’s refugee crisis.
The match between the city and Chinese dissident Ai is proving complicated as the artist’s iconoclastic style shocks local sensitivities and reopens the age-old debate on the boundaries of taste and artistic expression.
Tempers have been raised by “Reframe”, an installation of 22 orange rubber dinghies hung on the facade of the 15th-century palace that hosts Ai’s exhibition. The display echoes the artist’s January stunt, when he tied 14,000 life jackets to the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus.
“It’s a work that prompts us to stop and think,” the show’s organisers plead. “This time Ai Weiwei’s criticism is not directed at China but at the West, recalling the tragedy of those who set out on a gruelling and on an almost hopeless journey towards Europe’s shores.”
It is the most visually striking of the 60 artworks on view through January 22, and since it was put up last week, local authorities and the proprietors of the Palazzo Strozzi – the exhibition venue – have been flooded with hundreds, if not thousands, of protest messages.
“Simply disgusting,” Florentine Roberto Batistoni wrote on the Facebook page of Mayor Dario Nardella. “Defacing the facade of one of the world’s most beautiful palaces with filth, even wasting taxpayers’ money, is a disgrace.”
Ai told the press he was surprised at the scale of the animosity, but accepts the criticism because “art, especially contemporary art, is about raising consciousness” and sparking “intellectual debate”.
The 59-year-old said he felt a strong connection with refugees and migrants because their attempt to seek a better life while putting their lives at risk makes them “heroes of our times”.
Ai’s exhibition covers his entire career, including his New York beginnings in the 1980s, his return to China in the 1990s, the political oppression leading to his arrest in 2011 and his move to Germany last year at the end of a four-year travel ban.
It also features original material, such as new examples of his trademark Lego-brick portraits, depicting Florentine heroes such as Dante and Galileo, as well as a self-portrait to be donated to the city’s main museum, the Uffizi Gallery.
Other highlights are “Study of Perspective” – photos where he raises a middle finger to iconic landmarks such as the White House and the Colosseum – and “Han Dinasty Vases with Auto Paint”, a collection of ancient Chinese amphorae defaced with modern paint.
Palazzo Strozzi director and exhibition curator Arturo Galansino said it was the largest single display of Ai’s work and took “almost a year” to arrange. The palace had to be cleared of most of its interior fittings to accommodate it, he added.
Cristina Acidini, Florence’s former chief conservation official, said the city had been “enthusiastic and anxious in equal measure” about the radical artist’s arrival, but she gave him her personal thumbs-up.
“I’m not sure if this is art,” she said, “but for sure there is thought and emotion in it and a desire to express fragments and aspects of what we are experiencing. And after all, this is what artists are called out to do.”