The giggling Grade 10 students point at Ai Weiwei's marble surveillance camera, sitting on a perch at London's Lisson Gallery: What could be sillier than a stone camera? The artist would certainly appreciate their laughter, if he could hear it. China's celebrated provocateur has always wanted his work to be playful as well as pointed, to be appreciated by everyone from scholars to school kids.
One week ago, the kids' teacher was telling them somberly about the plight of the artist, who had been in custody since Chinese authorities arrested him at Beijing's airport on April 3. On Wednesday Ai was released, much to the relief of the global art community, which had been campaigning for his freedom.
While he'd long been a thorn in China's side for his politically pointed, and often downright accusatory artworks and public statements, the official line had been that Ai was detained for unspecified "economic crimes." A report from state media on Wednesday indicated his company "had evaded a huge amount of taxes" and the 54-year-old artist had agreed to pay.
The attention around his imprisonment and release has ensured that the Lisson show, already the most popular in the gallery's history, will continue to draw large crowds to see the artist's exuberant, beautifully crafted sculptures, which are both sardonic in context and reverent in execution.
As one of the staff at the Lisson Gallery said, watching the schoolchildren file out, "It's kind of backfired, hasn't it? The government wanted to shut him up and now he's more popular than ever."
As with so much of Ai's work, the Lisson Gallery show is double-edged: The marble surveillance camera winks at pop art, but it's also a reminder that the artist has been spied upon for years. A meticulously crafted, oversized wooden ball with geometric cut-outs is a reference to classical Chinese cabinet-making, but is also based on a cat toy. (Cats had pride of place at Ai's studio in China, before officials demolished it in January.)
"He's not one for mystifying, bombastic statements," said Greg Hilty, curator of the Lisson Gallery exhibit. "He wants people to think for themselves. It's a central idea in his art, and one that's led to this sorry pass with the government." The gallery hadn't put any of the works on sale, despite many inquiries, because it was worried that Ai's notoriety would lead to speculation on the art market.
For years, the 54-year-old Ai has lived in a precarious position, at once the most celebrated artist in his country and among its most vocal critics. The son of poet Ai Qing, a comrade of Mao Zedong's who was banished into awful, latrine-cleaning exile during the Cultural Revolution, he understood how dangerous shifting political sands can be. Ai, who fled Beijing to study art in New York in the 1980s, likes to quote his father: "It's your country, don't be polite."
An (untrained) architect as well as an artist, Ai helped design the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics - then promptly disavowed the whole Olympic exercise as a sham. For his art, he has dropped a priceless Han vase and painted the words "Coca-Cola" on others from the Tang dynasty. For the series A Study of Perspective, he photographed his hand, middle finger raised to the sky, in front of landmarks like the Forbidden City.
But one project, close to Ai's heart, brought particular heat. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the artist became convinced that thousands of children were killed needlessly because their schools were so poorly constructed. He sent volunteers out to identify each child, and covered the outside of Munich's Haus der Kunst with 9,000 children's knapsacks. In Chinese characters, they spelled out a quote from one grieving mother: "For seven years, she lived happily in this world."
The Chinese authorities shut down Ai's popular blog in 2009 (it has just been released in book form). The last entry reads, "What can they do to me? Nothing more than to banish, kidnap or imprison me."
When the Lisson Gallery show was being organized (at the same time Ai was filling the Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern with millions of porcelain sunflower seeds for another show), Hilty asked how things were going at home. "He'd give me a wry smile and say, 'You just get on with it.'
There is a second Ai show on in London at the moment, and this one has an even higher public profile - mainly because it involves 12 giant bronze animal heads sitting outside one of the city's most historic buildings. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads forms a semi-circle in the courtyard of Somerset House, where Admiral Nelson once strode the halls.
Those historic echoes are almost certainly why Ai chose Somerset House for the monumental sculpture, which is based on the animals of the Chinese zodiac, all with expressive faces: The snake is sinister; the ox suitably bovine. (Another edition of Circle of Animals is on display at New York's Pulitzer Plaza.)
The sculpture, which surrounds a fountain where children play, is both whimsical and historically significant. It's a recreation of the fountain clock of Yuanming Yuan, created by two Jesuit missionaries in the 18th century and plundered during the Opium Wars 100 years later. Some of the 12 original heads have been found and sold at high-end auctions around the world; five are still missing.
On hearing the news of Ai's release, Somerset House director Gwyn Miles said, "We're absolutely thrilled to hear that he's free and back with his family. It's a great result."
Ai was taken into custody before he could see either of his London shows in person. Now there's a chance he might.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is at Somerset House in London until June 26; Ai Weiwei is at Lisson Gallery in London until July 16.