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Renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei spent 81 days in a Chinese prison in 2011 following a government crackdown targeting human rights lawyers, writers and advocates. His experience and that of fellow freedom fighters is reflected in his installation Trace, a series of Lego portraits memorializing 176 political prisoners from throughout the world. First exhibited on Alcatraz Island in 2014, then the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., the show, pared down to 83 portraits, is on view at L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center through Aug. 1 (with reservation-only, one-hour time slots).
“When I was in detention, the man [a jailer] said, ‘Ai Weiwei, you watch too many Hollywood movies. This freedom you are fighting for will cost you your life. Day by day, minute by minute, second by second, you will spend the rest of your life in jail,” Ai says by phone from his home in Portugal. “I don’t know the reason I was released. My friends are still in jail, some may never come out — a life sentence for someone who did nothing to harm anybody, but simply has different beliefs.”
At the Skirball, the gallery walls are papered with a pattern called The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but Is Really an Alpaca, which mixes images of surveillance cameras, handcuffs, alpacas (an internet meme for freedom of expression in China), and the Twitter logo. (Look closely for Ai’s self-portrait as well.)
On display are Lego likenesses of such people as Seng-Aloun Phengphanh and Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, members of a Laotian student pro-democracy group who were each sentenced to 20 years for hanging posters. Also included are the familiar faces of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Martin Luther King Jr.
“The good guy cannot become a good guy before you put up a good fight. Bad guys have really put up a terrific fight. And it will take someone to respond, an individual who is powerful, who has yet to respond to our situations,” says Ai about threats to democracy both in the U.S. and around the globe. The answers to those threats are as yet unclear, he adds: “I can’t see there’s a profound, meaningful philosophical understanding about our time. If we don’t understand our time, then how can we fix the future?”
This story first appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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