BEIJING — For a year and a half the artist Ai Weiwei and a sculptor friend oversaw a team of 20 to 30 people toiling away here in secret on one of his most political and personal projects.
Their task was to reconstruct scenes from Mr. Ai’s illegal detention in 2011, when he was held for 81 days in a secret prison guarded by a paramilitary unit. What took shape this spring at an industrial space in the Chinese capital were six fiberglass dioramas that depict, at half-scale, his often banal daily existence as a captive of the vast government security apparatus.
The dioramas were quietly transported out of China — Mr. Ai declined to say exactly how — to Venice, where they will be publicly exhibited starting on Tuesday in a church being used as an art gallery by the Zuecca Project Space, in parallel with the 2013 Venice Biennale, though not officially part of it.
Each diorama is enclosed in a 2 ½-ton iron box. There are sculptures of Mr. Ai sleeping, eating, showering, undergoing interrogation and sitting on the toilet, all under the watch of two young guards in green uniforms. Mr. Ai said the details were meticulously recreated from memory, down to his blue flip-flops and the white padding taped to the walls of the room.
Along with an obscenity-laced music video posted online last week, the dioramas are the first of Mr. Ai’s pieces to address his detention, which was the most difficult period of his life, he said.
On a recent morning at his studio and home in northern Beijing, he explained in an interview that his goal was simple: “To give people a clear understanding of the conditions.” An assistant used an iPad to show visitors photographs of the dioramas while a shaved cat padded around, looking forlorn.
Mr. Ai, 56, has another work being shown by Zuecca, one that comments on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He also has a more conceptual piece at Venice that uses 800 small wooden stools and is an attempt, Mr. Ai said, to build a “monsterlike lively structure” that is “completely dysfunctional.” That work is part of a group exhibition put together by the curator for the German Pavilion in the Biennale, though the exhibition will be displayed in the French Pavilion as a gesture symbolizing ties between the two nations. Mr. Ai’s artwork is making its first appearance in the Biennale since his debut there in 1999.
“China is still in constant warfare, with destroying individuals’ nature, including people’s imaginations, curiosity, motivations, dreams,” Mr. Ai said. “This state’s best minds have been wasted by this high ideological control, which is fake. Even the people who are trying to use it as a tool to maintain power or stability know that this is a completely fake condition.”
Mr. Ai’s vitriol against the Communist Party has made him a polarizing figure in the Chinese art world. Many artists quietly resent the attention Mr. Ai has received from the West, as well as his occasional denunciations of other Chinese, including former friends, who are unwilling to take the same uncompromising stand against the party.
Critical reception in the West to his recent art varies — a 2010 exhibition of sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London was widely praised, while a 2012 retrospective at the Hirshhorn in Washington had mixed reviews.
“Can political art still be good art?” Mr. Ai said. “Those questions have been around for too long. People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle, but rather use high aesthetics, or so-called high aesthetics, to try to separate or purify humans’ emotions from the real world.”
The earthquake-related artwork in Venice literally builds on Mr. Ai’s previous political criticism. For the Hirshhorn show, Mr. Ai’s work “Straight” consisted of a pile of long reinforced steel bars from the Sichuan earthquake sites, which he collected and then had straightened. At Venice Mr. Ai is again exhibiting a pile of the bars, but double in terms of weight, for a total of 90 tons.
As earlier, the piece is meant to criticize how corruption in China has led to shoddy construction across the country and thus to loss of lives in the quake. Nearly 90,000 people were killed or missing, including more than 5,000 children who died when schools collapsed.
“It will remain for a long time to remind people what happened,” Mr. Ai said. “Until today they have never answered our questions.”
Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said in general, “Weiwei has been looking, in the years since his detention, for a way to use art to talk about social issues in a way that still codes and functions as art.” The metal rods from Sichuan, he said, are “a good example of his search for this middle road between overtly political and purely formal.”
The six dioramas, titled “S.A.C.R.E.D,” are more personal. Since his release two years ago, Mr. Ai has been obsessing over the details of his detention and the ordeals of several friends persecuted at the same time. In late 2011 he gave several long interviews to The New York Times in which he described the conditions of his detention and his daily activities. The details in the dioramas are consistent with his earlier accounts, down to the color of the wallpaper.
“I am sure that it will be a powerful piece,” said Karen Smith, an art historian and independent curator who has seen photographs of the project. “In spite of the fact that to all outward appearances Weiwei seems to be holding up well and maintaining his focus in the period since his detention, this work suggests a need to confront the ‘demon’ that such an experience certainly represents for him.”
She added, “Although this work will seem like a very public indictment of the system, the personal aspect of the piece will no doubt be the element that lends it weight.”
Officials are still holding his passport and the police sometimes follow him to unlikely places (a ski resort, for instance), but Mr. Ai has more freedom than he did in the first year after his release. The loosening of surveillance is demonstrated by the fact that he was able to work secretly on both the dioramas and the music video, which was shot by Christopher Doyle, a renowned cinematographer, in a life-size model of Mr. Ai’s cell.
Mr. Ai said he is almost through mining his detention for his art, but there is one more project to come.
“I have a book I’m writing,” he said. “It’s already 80 percent finished. I have this terrible responsibility: I have to record every stupid detail, and it’s so dry and so boring, and to me it’s so terrible. That’s why it’s taken me two years to try to finish it. Every time I sat down, it was a struggle — ‘Why do I have to write this down?’ But I have to. This is just an obligation.”
About the author: Edward Wong is an American journalist and a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Amy Qin contributed research.