The first US survey of the work of Ai Weiwei opens this weekend in Washington, shaped -- in the words of the dissident artist himself -- by his ongoing struggle with the powers that be in Beijing, AFP reports.
"Ai Weiwei: According to What?" takes up an entire floor of the Hirshhorn Museum with photographs, videos, sculptures, installations and, on the bare white walls, thought-provoking quotations from the man himself.
Among the highlights:
-- Some 3,200 porcelain river crabs, a crustacean reflection on the Chinese Internet slang word for censorship;
-- An elongated ceiling-mounted snake made up of green backpacks representing the thousands of youngsters who perished in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and whose names Ai has memorialized over an entire wall;
-- Seven thousand digital photographs, many of them inoffensive snapshots of cats, that Ai posted on the Internet before the Chinese government blocked his access to social media;
-- Ninety-eight Weegee-like street photographs from Ai's years in New York, a room-sized block of chandelier crystals that seems to float off the floor and, in the courtyard, a 12-piece sculptural suite of Chinese zodiac figures.
"I lived in the United States for 12 years from the 1980s to the early 1990s, so the opportunity for a show here is very meaningful for me," said Ai in a statement relayed Tuesday by the Hirshhorn's director, Richard Koshalek.
"I've experienced dramatic changes in my living and working conditions over the past few years," he added, alluding in part to the 81 days he spent in detention last year amid a roundup of Chinese activists.
"This exhibition has been an opportunity to re-examine past work and to communicate with audiences from afar."
Ai himself was conspicuously absent from Tuesday's media preview, but not out of choice.
"He really wanted to come ... but he doesn't have a passport," which Beijing is refusing to return to him despite the expiration of a travel ban four months ago, curator Mami Kataoka told AFP.
Ai, 55, has been under sustained pressure over Chinese government allegations of tax evasion by his design company, Fake Cultural Development, resulting in a $2.4 million fine by the Beijing tax bureau last year.
Earlier Tuesday his lawyer said the firm's business license is being revoked, forcing its shutdown. But he added that Ai -- who remains under investigation for supposedly putting "pornography" on the Internet -- would keep on creating.
The burly artist, whose poet father Ai Qing suffered persecution under the late Mao Zedong, denies the accusations, which have only helped elevate him as superstar on the global art scene.
The Hirshhorn exhibition, based on a show Kataoka put together for Tokyo's Mori Art Museum three years ago, runs through February 24, after which it will travel to Indianapolis, Indiana; Toronto, Canada; Miami and New York.
"I think he wanted, through these exhibitions, to communicate with a larger public," said Kataoka, who added that Ai -- despite his inability to leave China -- was intimately involved in putting the Hirshhorn show together.
Kataoka traveled often to China to consult with him, countless emails were sent back and forth, and five of Ai's assistants traveled to the United States to help put the artwork in place.
"He's a wonderful individual," the Hirshhorn's chief curator Kerry Brougher, who has met Ai, told AFP when asked to describe the artist's personality.
"He's very charismatic, actually. He's relatively quiet, but he speaks volumes with his silence, and when he does speak it's very well thought out -- and he also has a wonderful sense of humor."