In 2011 the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a frequent critic of his country's government and human rights abuses, was arrested under only the vaguest of charges (which were belatedly "explained" as being that of tax evasion) and held in a small room in a secret location for 81 days, during which time he was subjected to the most intimate and constant surveillance. For those 81 days he was never alone--two guards always beside him, always watching him--and the lights in his room were kept burning 24/7.
Ai's new work Disposition, on view until September at the usually closed church of Sant'Antonin in Castello, is his first detailed account of his days of captivity. Seeing it just a day after a poll was released in the US showing that a majority of respondents (56%) had no problem with unfettered government surveillance (in violation of the Constitution), I found it particularly troubling.
The six detailed less-than-life-size dioramas are contained in an equal number of large dark weathered steel boxes, sharp-angled and blank except for the same identical door (with same room number), a small viewing window on one side, and one or two small rectangular viewing skylights on top. The work requires that each of its viewers indulge in a bit of surveillance him- or herself, peering through small openings to get a glimpse of what had been, prior to this exhibit, kept entirely out of sight.
Ideally, the boxes would have been made of lead, for its sense of heavy suffocating impenetrability, but the dimensions and surface of the boxes approximate a similar sense (with the obvious added advantage of being portable). The scenes inside of how Ai spent each of his days in detention are claustrophobic, and become more so the longer you look at them--and the longer you think about them after leaving the exhibit.
The work was created specifically for this site of Sant'Antonin, which remains--though closed and almost never the site of a mass--a consecrated church. And Ai makes explicit reference to the site with the acronym with which he describes the six scenes: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt. Perhaps he means to suggest that in a Surveillance State The Lives of the Artists are prone to become too much like The Lives of the Saints, with persecution and even martyrdom the common themes. However, I didn't find myself thinking of artists in particular while I peered inside the six boxes, but of all the anonymous others--who have never lived in New York City, as Ai did for 12 years, nor even left their home countries--who have been, and are, subjected to similar treatment or worse, and who disappear without a trace.
Of course the treatment to which Ai was subjected in his 81 days hidden away in detention was not merely surveillance, but torture.
Unfortunately, too many polls of Americans in recent years have shown a majority of respondents have no problem with that either.