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Art key to freedom of expression
Art key to freedom of expression

Standing up for the truth is something Chinese art star Ai Weiwei knows something about.

Famed for co-designing Beijing's "Bird Nest" 2008 Olympic stadium and his subversive artworks, the sculptor, architect, filmmaker and activist blogger is a darling abroad and a devil with the authorities at home for his social and political campaigns.

Another major international collaboration before Ai's detention in 2011 was to design the set for The Truth 25 Times a Second, a Ballet de National Marseille production which opens in the Perth International Arts Festival tonight.

Ai is known for his dangerous cat-and-mouse internet campaigns, such as his exposure of corruption and shoddy building practices blamed for the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake.

"At the moment, my physical freedom is limited, but spiritually it is limitless," he told _The West Australian _ by email from his home north-east of Beijing. "Freedom is about our struggle for liberty, and very often both physical and spiritual freedom need to come together to express emotional truth."

The 55-year-old has exhibited at the Tate Modern in London, the Venice Biennale, the Documenta in Kassel and been named the world's most powerful art figure by Britain's Art Review magazine.

"Power means responsibility," he said. "It means that more people can rest or have the excuse to rest."

Ai had been thought by many people to be immune from persecution, partly because he is the son of Ai Qing, one of China's most revered modern poets, and partly because of his international status.

However, returning to China after an overseas tour in 2011, he was arrested at the airport and detained for nearly three months. After his release, he was accused of tax evasion and barred from leaving the country.

After lying low for much of the past year, Wei recently re-emerged with a series of appearances including his online video parody of Gangnam Style in which he twirls a set of handcuffs in defiance of the Chinese Government. The video was quickly blocked in China.

Ai said it was important that one day his homeland might relax restrictions on his work, and that of other out-of-favour artists, because true national development came from open expression and the flow of ideas.

"It requires confidence, knowledge, as well as a profound understanding and tolerance of creativity to accept ideas that are different from established conventions," he said. "Even without the political oppression today, much time is required before China could establish a cultural environment that is constructive for a contemporary life.

"Contrary to China's consumption of a quarter of the world's motor vehicles, it must produce less than one per cent of its creative products, and consumes even less from the global cultural industry.

"Instead of encouraging young people to think independently, to introduce new possibilities to the nation's future, and to enrich their knowledge bases with free access to communication and new ideas, the Government spends exhaustive effort to block any useful information that gives people insight into truth, transparency, fairness and justice. It is a tremendous effort that occupies the Government to the point that it has become its life struggle. Nothing meaningful will come out of such a structure, at least in the near future."

The Truth 25 Times a Second, created in 2010 with choreographer Frederic Flamand, is about a flight to freedom and explores truth, lies and the impact of technology on our dealings with others. Its title derives from the Jean-Luc Godard quote: "The cinema is the truth 24 times a second."

Ai has transformed the performance space with ladders, creating a series of structures for the dancers to navigate.

"When I was in the Beijing Film Academy, I studied animation and have always been fascinated by the stage," he said. "My stage experience also helped with the work. I was once an extra in a (Franco) Zeffirelli production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York."

He said there were many benefits of collaborating with people in other disciplines, such as the choreographer Flamand and the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, with whom he worked on the Olympic Stadium.

"The best collaborations provide the occasion to recognise and experience the efforts made from different perspectives, to pay respects to existing achievements while at the same time finding ourselves in a position to question the discipline in a precise manner."

Ai lived in the US during the 1980s and returned to China in 1993, when his father, an activist in the pre-communist Kuomintang era, became ill.

"When I returned to Beijing in the 1990s, the oppression was still severe, with no room for freedom of expression. There was an illusion near the time of the Olympics that China would participate as a part of the world culture.

"When the Games began, it was a moment we realised our dream had been shattered, because China has become even more of a police state."

Asked whether he would do anything differently if he had his time over again, he said: "I would not do anything differently, but for certain I would not repeat myself." The Truth 25 Times a Second is at the Heath Ledger Theatre until Monday.

'My physical freedom is limited, but spiritually it is limitless.'" Ai Weiwei