The Chinese artist, activist, and filmmaker Ai Weiwei slumped in a chair at the Kettle’s Yard gallery, in Cambridge. He had a trimmed goatee and was dressed all in black, the heels of his shoes crushed to be worn like house slippers. He yawned and scratched his calf. “It’s so boring,” he said. He got up and began wandering the empty galleries, inspecting a pair of ancient-looking Chinese sculptures in glass display cabinets. The objects were part of his new exhibit, “The Liberty of Doubt.” Ai had overseen the installation from his studio in Portugal, and this was the first day he had actually seen the show in person.
“Are you trying to tell which ones are real, Weiwei?” Greg Hilty, the curatorial director at the Lisson Gallery, which represents the artist, asked.
The show is based on a peculiar conceit. In 2020, one of Ai’s friends tipped him off to a sale of Chinese antiquities at Cheffins, an auction house in Cambridge. Ai had recently moved to the city with his partner and his son, after four years of exile in Berlin. He was on the road and looked at the auction house’s Web site. “Several pieces looked charming,” he said, and the prices were “unthinkably low.” To amuse himself, he placed a few bids, and he ended up winning about fifty items.
One of Ai’s most famous works is a photographic triptych of him dropping a Han-dynasty urn; the piece is reproduced at Kettle’s Yard in gray-scale Legos. He is also an obsessive collector who has spent years trolling Beijing’s antiquities markets. When the items he bought from Cheffins arrived, he found that they had been “badly wrapped” in newspaper. As he began examining them, “I realize some of them are not real,” he said. “On iPhone, you don’t see the patina.” He consulted an antiquities expert back in China, who confirmed his suspicions. The expert then said, “I know who made some of them.” Ai pointed out that there’s a long tradition of copying and one-upmanship among Chinese artists that is at odds with Western concepts of authenticity.
As it happened, Ai had just been asked to do an exhibit at Kettle’s Yard. The one requirement, according to the gallery’s director, Andrew Nairne, was that the works utilize “local materials.” Ai had the mischievous notion of mixing his phony (and real) auction acquisitions with pieces of his household furniture, ceramics, and stone reproductions of everyday objects: he had a CCTV camera and a takeout container rendered in marble, and a pair of handcuffs and an old iPhone were carved from hunks of jade. In the exhibit, some of the marble and jade works are arranged in an antique mahogany case purchased from the British Museum. It once stored ancient Chinese earthenware.
When the show opened, a critic from the Guardian wondered whether the artist was just “phoning it in, on a jade iPhone.” Ai seemed troubled. “I still struggle with whether or not I am a good artist,” he said.
He perked up when a group of Cambridge students arrived for a private tour. A pair of young men admired a plate featuring a scan of Ai’s brain after he’d been beaten by police, in 2009.
“I had a few while I was at the doctor’s, for these tests about language-acquisition aptitude,” one of the students said. “They would show you your brain. I thought it was great at the time. I’ve since realized that doing that repeatedly . . .” He trailed off.
In another corner, a trio was examining large blue-and-white porcelain plates featuring contemporary scenes of political strife, takeoffs on the Blue Willow pattern. In the center of one plate, masked protesters are surrounded by clouds of swirling tear gas.
An upstairs gallery had been turned into a screening room and was showing the artist’s 2020 documentary about the Hong Kong protests, “Cockroach.” Muffled screams, cheers, gunfire, and police sirens echoed through the building. “If we give up like this, we won’t be able to pay our debts we owe to the people who have left, who have been hurt, arrested . . . or who have to live in exile,” a young protester says in the film.
In the gallery, a student mentioned that she was from Hong Kong and had been part of the protests. “These kinds of images bring me back,” she said.
“Was it pretty scary?” a boy asked.
The girl paused. “It was less scary than the news reports,” she said, her tone growing wistful. “Those were the days.” ♦