On Wednesday morning, as he has every day for the past year and a half, Ai Weiwei placed a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle that stands outside his studio in Beijing. The selection included carnations and baby’s breath. The day before, he’d picked sunflowers. He started the week with lilies.
For more than a year and a half, China’s infamous dissident artist has arranged his blooms in a daily demonstration against the confiscation of his passport. Titled With Flowers, the work is part-protest, part-performance art. But no longer: After four years, the artist announced via Instagram on Wednesday that the Chinese government had returned his passport. Since 2011, after Ai was arrested on charges of tax evasion, jailed for 81 days, and then released, the government had kept it confiscated, and refused him any other travel papers.
With Flowers endured for about 600 days. Ai started the performance on November 13, 2013, more than two years into his confinement. The demonstration serves as an extraordinary record of his imprisonment: He placed the flowers outside the aquamarine door at 258 Caochangdi, home to his art studio as well as his design and architecture firm, FAKE Design. They were mighty arrangements, rarely modest, all formally documented on Flickr. Ai is both active and savvy on social media (which is part of what prompted his trouble with the authorities), and his flowers traveled far beyond the plastic basket on his black Giant bike via posts on Flickr, Instagram, and Twitter.
The exercise is typical of the work that’s made Ai a beloved figure at home and abroad. With Flowers is an endurance piece that results in delight, not exhaustion. It’s repetitious yet deceptive, a bit like the artist’s Sunflower Seeds, a 2010 installation at London’s Tate Modern featuring millions of ceramic seeds that were each individually handcrafted by workshops in Jingdezhen.
It’s also related to the work that put him in the sights of Chinese authorities. Following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, Ai set out to name (with the help of civilian investigators) the more than 5,000 children who were killed when their schools collapsed. While the government formally suppressed the information, Ai listed the children’s names on social media and in exhibitions, also referring to the disaster in other works. Straight, a sculpture that appeared at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2012, is made of 38 tons of rebar. Ai recovered the mangled steel from the Sichuan quake, then worked with craftsmen to straighten out each piece.
Ai’s work is known for its playfulness and irreverence, but it’s his ability to make profound statements gracefully that underscores his global impact. Placing flowers is an elegant gesture, but also a mournful one. Mixed sentiments like these abound in Ai’s work, as well as in With Flowers.
On September 27, 2014, the day that his monumental installation @Large opened at the former Alcatraz prison, Ai celebrated with roses and daisies. There were other milestones preceding With Flowers that Ai missed out on because of his inability to travel: a Sundance Film Festival award for Never Sorry, the documentary about his life and work, or the opening of his first major U.S. survey at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C.
What’s so bracing about With Flowers is that Ai might never have left the country again, but he intended to endure his punishment every morning with a statement—a declaration of persistence. It’s unclear whether China’s decision means that Ai can travel back and forth safely, but he told The Guardian that he intends to visit his son in Germany. May he be greeted with flowers when he gets there.