LONDON (AP) — It was an unexpected photo opportunity, as Ai Weiwei stood inside London's Royal Academy of Arts Tuesday surrounded by 20 years' worth of his artworks.
The Chinese artist is world famous for works addressing human rights abuses, official corruption and the collision between Chinese culture and Western consumerism. But in his homeland, he has been imprisoned, put under house arrest and barred from international travel.
In July, Chinese officials unexpectedly returned Ai's passport after four years, allowing him to visit Britain for the opening of the academy's major retrospective show.
"We didn't think he'd come," said Royal Academy artistic director Tim Marlow, who co-curated the exhibition. "We thought eventually he might be able to travel, but it could have been months, years. As it happened, it was weeks."
There was one further snag when the British Embassy in Beijing turned down Ai's request for a six-month business visa, giving him a shorter visa instead, on the grounds that he had failed to disclose a criminal conviction. Ai was jailed for almost three months in 2011 amid a wider crackdown on dissent, but wasn't charged with a crime.
After a media uproar over what Marlow calls "a national embarrassment," British Home Secretary Theresa May overturned the embassy's refusal.
Marlow hopes the show, which opens to the public Saturday and runs to Dec. 13, will "let the art speak louder" than Ai's political woes.
"We're not playing down Weiwei's role as a social activist and a historian and a political campaigner," he said. "I think his courage and bravery is inextricably linked to his art. But I think he's a phenomenally inventive artist, and that shines forth."
Ai's work is both political and playful, which leads some to question his high-art credentials — a skepticism also directed at the equally famous graffiti artist Banksy. But 58-year-old Ai is steeped in art history, both Chinese and Western.
Marlow calls Ai's work "a conversation between Western modernism and Chinese culture and history." The artist, who lived in the U.S. between 1981 and 1993, often takes traditional Chinese materials such as marble, porcelain, hardwood and jade, and adapts them to modern new forms.
The exhibition includes a pair of jade handcuffs, a 2,000-year-old vase painted with the Coca-Cola logo and a surveillance camera carved from white marble — from the same quarry that supplied Chairman Mao Zedong's mausoleum.
Other works are more directly political. "Straight" is an undulating carpet of steel reinforcing bars salvaged from the rubble of a 2008 earthquake in China's Sichuan province. More than 5,000 students died when shoddily constructed schools collapsed.
"Remains" consists of porcelain reproductions of human bones, belonging to an inmate who died in a Chinese forced-labor camp. The artist's father, poet Ai Qing, was exiled to such a camp with his family when Ai was a 1-year-old boy.
One room contains six recreations of the cell where Ai was held in solitary confinement in 2011 — complete with models of Ai and two guards, positioned a foot away as he read, slept, showered or used the toilet.
There are signs that China's official attitude to Ai is softening. He has said his passport was returned without conditions, and since June he has been permitted to hold exhibitions in Beijing.
But full acceptance may be some way off.
In the London exhibition, a glass case holds two editions of the same art history book. The English-language version contains an entry on Ai. In the Chinese version, he has been replaced by a safely dead Renaissance artist.
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