After four years of house arrest and an international travel ban, the People’s Republic of Chinese unexpectedly returned the passport of Ai Weiwei, giving the internationally renowned artist the opportunity to visit a show featuring his sculptures at London’s Royal Academy of Arts this week. He’s shown here with his “Forever” sculpture built from hundreds of bicycles installed in front of the iconic Gherkin building in London.
After Beijing reinstated Weiwei’s travel privileges, the artist applied at the British Embassy for a six month business visa. The Embassy initially denied the request because they say Weiwei failed to disclose a criminal conviction. Weiwei was jailed in 2011 but not charged with any crime. The British Home Secretary reversed the Embassy’s decision and granted the visa.
“The Forever bicycles were a brand from when I was growing up,” says Weiwei of this sculpture. “In our village there were no real roads and we always had to ride bikes to carry things. I thought they would be a good public sculpture because people relate to bikes. They’re designated for the body and operated with your body. There are a few things today that are like that.”
In spite of the artist’s simple explanation, Wewei’s famously colossal bicycle sculptures are filled with political subtext resulting in various metaphorical interpretations. Some say the sameness of the bikes can represent the anonymous workers who churn out goods while the sheer mass of the sculpture symbolizes overconsumption both in the West and in China. The maze-like labyrinth and shifting perspectives might represent the rapidly changing social landscape in China. Perhaps welding hundreds of bicycles — a symbol of mobility — into a fixed structure represents how Western ideals of social mobility and freedom don’t always translate when granting travel visas to Chinese dissidents.