Driving around Beijing in fake police cars and deriding China's surveillance society. China's artists are often braver than many in the West would think, as has been made apparent at Berlin's "The Path of 8" Exhibition.
His fame is unparalleled in Germany, where Ai Wei Wei, the dissident from Beijing, is undisputedly China's most famous artist. Indeed, he is arguably the only Chinese artist known to a wider German audience.
It's safe to say that it's the Chinese government that has made him so popular here. Ever since his incarceration in 2011, there has been a wave of support - especially from Berlin where he had wanted to buy a studio and where he holds a visiting professorship that he was never able to take up.
He was also unable to travel to attend the opening of what is his biggest international exhibition to date. Since the beginning of April, the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum of applied arts in Berlin has been the venue for his "Evidence" display, a visually overwhelming indictment of Beijing over its human rights violations.
There has been no shortage of visitors. By the beginning of this week, more than 72,000 people had attended - rivaling the attendance figures for any of the renowned venue's blockbuster exhibitions. German cinemas will soon begin to show a second documentary film about him.
Encounter with police
What hardly anyone in the West knows is that Beijing is home to a thriving and rapidly growing arts scene, quite apart from Ai Wei Wei. With works - often about politics - that are sometimes witty and provocative, sometimes cryptic or sublime, artists are exploring the boundaries of what is possible.
Among the artists' endeavors has been the conversion of an SUV into a fake police car, which they drove through the streets of nighttime Beijing. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, the married couple who committed what museum curator Guo Xiaoyan describes as this "act of resistance," soon ran in to the real police.
"They were very afraid, but nothing happened," said Guo. "The police didn't notice anything because there are always higher-ranking individuals who use police cars so that they can drive around freely."
The video of this piece of satire is now being shown at the Berlin exhibition "Die 8 der Wege," or "The 8 of Paths." The quirky title alludes not only to what is considered to be the luckiest number by most Chinese, but also the symbol for infinity. There are many ways to approach art. In some cases, there may be two completely contradictory works by a single artist, such as He Xiangyu, born in 1986. For a year-and-a-half, he boiled down some 120 metric tons of coca cola, which in the end became a monstrous lava-like, toxic clump of matter. His defiant monument against capitalism is now on show in Belin.
Chipping at the myth
A few meters away lies a lifelike replica of Ai Wei Wei, fallen, with his face to the ground, which was completed in 2011by He Xiangyu, shortly after the arrest of Ai. Its title "The Death of Marat" is reminiscent of the murder of the French radical revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, who died at the hands of a supporter of the royalist Girondins.
It is, at the very least, an oblique reference to Ai Wei Wei as a victim of Chinese political life. Or is it something else altogether. The fact that the Ai Wei Wei in question is wearing the blue suit of Chinese officials introduces confusion to traditional model of victim and villain, of good and evil.
It would appear to be a case of someone, a member of the younger generation, chipping away at the myth of a man who so well fits with the expectations of the West.
Human rights activists, who speak just as vociferously as Ai Wei Wei, are nowhere to be found at the exhibition. "Chinese art is more about lateral thinking than about being direct," said the exhibition's German curator Andreas Schmidt, who lived in China for many years and who has observed the art scene in the country for the past three decades. "Ai Wei Wei's art is interesting for us in the West," said Schmidt. "He spent a long time in the West and was influenced by it, but, for many Chinese, his way is not the right way to go about solving problems."
Topics relevant to all
Young artists in Beijing have, in any case, found many different ways to express themselves - sometimes subtly, sometimes explicit. One such artist is Yang Junling. He made a theme of his own homosexuality in a garish painting that shows a gay couple having sex in the open air, surrounded by surveillance cameras."I will monitor your morale at all times," was the title he gave to the painting. Like all the other works at the Berlin show, the piece has also been shown in China.
Whether the issue being addressed is surveillance, environmental damage, abuse of power or militarism, many of the themes of the exhibition are relevant far beyond China. Startlingly topical is a piece of video work, again by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, in which blindfolded men skillfully assemble and disassemble guns; something intended as a commentary on the cult of weapons. The work should, in fact, have been shown in China or the US, but the pair faced resistance in both countries. They finally had luck in showing the video - in Ukraine.
Global issues have long been addressed by Beijing's artists, even if they don't express it as directly as Ai Wei Wei. An indirect approach is perhaps more frequently the tactic, with plenty of examples on show in the galleries and museums of Berlin.
While many people know, to some extent, what to expect of Ai Wei Wei, this exhibition can still offer surprises - snapshots of a time in which, between repression and artistic anarchy, anything can happen.