LISBON – Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is putting on the biggest show of his career, and he is doing it in a place he’s fallen in love with: Portugal.
The world-renowned visual artist’s new exhibition, “Rapture,” opens in the Portuguese capital Lisbon on Friday.
Ai arrived in Portugal almost two years ago and says he has no plans to return to Germany or England, where he has also lived since leaving China in 2015.
“I have a great feeling” about Portugal, the artist said Thursday. “This is a place I’m staying.”
Ai’s show in São Paulo in 2018 covered twice the area of the Lisbon exhibit but had fewer works on display.
“Rapture” is being presented in a long, low, riverside building that housed Portugal’s national rope factory starting in the 18th century and now hosts temporary art exhibitions. Ai’s show runs until Nov. 28.
The 85 pieces include some of Ai’s iconic works, as well as new ones produced exclusively in Portugal.
“Forever Bicycles,” from 2015, a giant sculpture using 960 stainless steel bicycles as building blocks, stands at the entrance to the building. Ai's 16-meter-long (52-foot-long) black inflatable boat with human figures, which alludes to the migration crisis, is also in Lisbon, as are some other of his well-known installations, sculptures, videos and photographs.
Ai notes, however, that most of the works “have never met each other” and are appearing in the same place for the first time.
Ai was arrested at Beijing’s airport in April 2011 and held for 81 days without explanation during a wider crackdown on dissent. He moved to Europe after Chinese authorities returned his passport.
He has traveled across Portugal visiting craftspeople and manufacturers who use traditional Portuguese methods and materials such as marble, textiles, hand-painted tiles and cork.
His experimentation has yielded a self-portrait sculpture in cork, a cut-out world map in fabric that stands about 1.5 meters (5 feet) high, a 40-meter-long (130-feet-long) rug, and a marble cylinder almost 2 meters (6.5 feet) high.
Marcello Dantas, the show’s Brazilian curator, says that Ai arrived in Portugal for the first time in 2019 on a flight that landed at 8 a.m. By lunchtime, he had bought a house near the farming town of Montemor-o-Novo, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Lisbon
“I always make decisions by my personal instinct,” Ai said. “I feel comfortable here.”
The artist ticks off what appeals to him about the country: the relatively slow pace of life, the “very open” people, the “very acceptable” food and the abundant sunshine.
Ai says the limits on movement during the COVID-19 pandemic furnished him with “a most productive time.” Over the past year or so, he made three feature-length films in addition to art pieces. He has a book coming out later this year and another exhibition planned for this summer in the northern Portuguese city of Porto.
Remaining in Portugal was “probably the best decision I ever made,” he says.