From the New Industries Building’s lower gun gallery, where armed guards once monitored prisoners at work, visitors peered through cracked and rusted windows to glimpse an enormous metal wing on the floor below. Its design was based on close observation of the structure of real birds’ wings, but in place of feathers, the artwork bristled with reflective panels originally used on solar cookers in Tibet, a region that has long struggled under Chinese rule.
Like With Wind on the floor above, this piece used imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom — be it physical, political, or creative — and confinement. The sculpture’s enormous bulk (it weighed more than five tons) and constrained position on the lower floor kept it earthbound, but one might imagine its array of solar panels silently mustering energy, preparing for takeoff.
By requiring visitors to view the work from the gun gallery, the installation implicated visitors in a complex structure of power and control. Following in the footsteps of prison guards, visitors were placed in a position of authority, and yet the narrowness of the space created a visceral feeling of restriction.
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Ai Weiwei is a Beijing-based artist and activist whose work encompasses sculpture, installation, photography, film, architecture, curation, and social criticism. His art has been featured in major solo exhibitions including Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, UK, 2014; Evidence at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2014; and Ai Weiwei: According to What?, which was organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in 2009, and traveled to North American venues in 2013–14. Ai collaborated with architects Herzog & de Meuron on the “bird’s nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015.