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Ai Weiwei takes a powder

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

The Chinese artist is unfazed by critics who view his works as documentary and not art

In Singapore, as in Hong Kong, the Chinese snap up cans of baby milk powder to bring back to China.

But Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is not going with the flow. He is sending 1,815 cans of the white stuff to Singapore instead for his solo show in Singapore next month.

It is illegal to take more than two cans of baby milk powder out of Hong Kong, but legal to ship out more than a thousand of these once they are classified as art objects, he notes.

"If we were to give them to people who need the milk powder, what would the authorities say?" Ai, 56, muses at his Beijing studio.

The milk cans will be put together to form a map of China in an installation titled "Baby Formula 2013". It's part of the artist's first solo show in Singapore at a private gallery.

The burly man with the arched eyebrows and a wispy Taoist master's beard, revered outside China but resented by Beijing for his activism, was invited by Singapore gallery owner Michael Janssen.

"I have been following Ai Weiwei's career for a long time and I believe he is one of the most important artists of our time. He is an excellent sculptor and conceptual artist and possesses a sharp political mind," Janssen says.

In turn, Ai felt that Singapore was the right fit for the baby formula installation, which will be shown with another work called "Wallpapers", as it is "a strongly Chinese society" with a good grasp of Asian affairs.

It took some effort, though, to collect the milk powder, all foreign brands prized by Chinese parents who have sworn off domestic ones after the Sanlu milk powder scandal in 2008. About 300,000 Chinese toddlers fell sick and six died after drinking tainted milk that year.

Ai, who has a four-year-old son, says: "When a country punishes people not just for smuggling drugs but also for smuggling baby milk powder, we know it's a very dangerous sign."

He hopes his work will resonate in Singapore, which he has not visited, though he has heard of "the beautiful casinos".

Before he became a thorn in the side of China's powerful, he was very much an artist feted by the regime's media and was involved in designing the "Bird's Nest", Beijing's Olympic Stadium.

In April 2011, however, Ai junior was detained ostensibly for state subversion, a nebulous charge pinned on many dissidents. He was locked up without warning or given a chance to defend himself, and was released in similar fashion 81 days later.

He has been barred from travelling outside of China since his release. Today, he still has minders watching him if he so much as steps out of his compound.

"China is such a big country facing such great changes, but in some areas, it has maintained what had been done 50 years, half a century ago. China will not become a great country that influences world civilisation until it learns to respect its people's rights, like the right to express themselves, he says.

And all that talk from top leader Xi Jinping about the Chinese dream of national renaissance will not matter. "All I can think of are nightmares," he says.

Some Chinese see him as one whose morals are suspect, given his seeming liking for taking nude photos and his fathering a son with a woman he had an affair with. He is married to artist Lu Qing, 49. They have no children.

But Ai says many young Chinese support him.

There are also doubts about his art. Some have dismissed him for being more dissident than artist. As art critic Jed Perl wrote in The New Republic in February, Ai is "a man with a quick mind, indomitable energy, and no particular aptitude for art".

He says some items at the "Ai Weiwei: According To What?" show at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum, such as name lists of students killed in the Sichuan earthquake, are "close to documentary".

Ai is unfazed by such criticism.

"People can say I'm more of a rubbish collector than an artist. There's no problem," says Ai, who counts American artists Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns as well as French-American conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp as his influences.

Does he worry that his works, many of which are commentaries on current affairs, will be as fleeting as a tweet?

Not at all, he says.

Instead, he says his art is like infant formula: "It has a shelf life but once taken into the baby's body, the baby will grow. My artwork may wane and perish, but its effects will remain with the people who have seen it."

DRINK IT IN

Ai Weiwei's "Baby Formula" is on show from August 23 to October 6 at Michael Janssen Singapore, Gillman Barracks, 9 Lock Road. It's open Tuesday to Saturday from noon to 7pm and on Sunday until 6pm. Call (++65) 6734 8948




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