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Ai Weiwei makes triumphant return to Sydney to open biennial

Giant refugee lifeboat is one of two works by Chinese dissident artist in the Biennale of Sydney

Ai Weiwei in front of his work Law of the Journey (2017) at the 21st Biennale of Sydney. Don Arnold/WireImage

When Ai Weiwei had a work shown in the Biennale of Sydney in 2006, the Chinese dissident artist and activist was perplexed when “I never got any interviews” even though he had travelled so far to be in Australia. Having returned to Sydney for this year’s biennial (16 March-11 June), he’s had cause to remember what his friend Andy Warhol once told him: “Be careful what you wish for.” 

Now that Ai is famous as a political activist punished by own country for his relentless campaign for human rights, he has been inundated with so many media interviews and engagements in Sydney that he told an In Conversation event at the Opera House with the biennial’s artistic director Mami Kataoka on 15 March that talking so much about his inflatable refugee boat and his film Human Flow was getting “a little bit boring”.

Ai has two art works in the 2018 Biennale of Sydney. There’s the monumental PVC vessel with more than 300 passengers, titled Law of the Journey (2017). The turbine hall on the former industrial site of Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, where the work is sited, could have been made for it, Ai said. The other work is Crystal Ball (2017), which is a one-metre transparent sphere resting on a nest of orange life jackets that Ai collected from Lesbos. The Greek island is a key entry point for the flood of Middle Eastern refugees into Europe, and Ai included it in Human Flow. Crystal Ball is on view at Artspace in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo.

With the subtitle of Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement, the Biennale of Sydney displays the work of 70 artists from 35 countries. The seven venues include Carriageworks (the former railway yards at Eveleigh), the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Works in the biennial include a poignant multichannel animated video called The Views by Chen Shaoxiong, a close friend of Kataoka. The views in the work are those Chen saw from the window in the hospital where he lay dying in 2016.

Oliver Beer, Tiffany Chung, Marjolijn Dijkman, N.S. Harsha, Prabhavathi Meppayil, Ciara Phillips and Yukinori Yanagi are among the International artists in the Biennale. Local artists include Khaled Sabsabi, George Tjungurrayi, Simryn Gill and the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists co-operative from Alice Springs.