FREEDOM Curated By Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

27 October – 18 December 2022
Southbank Centre
Exhibition Space, Level 1
Royal Festival Hall

Koestler Arts is proud and thrilled to announce that their fifteenth Annual UK Exhibition in partnership with the Southbank Centre this October will be curated by Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist, Ai Weiwei. 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the Koestler Awards and Ai Weiwei wants this landmark exhibition to be ‘the most ambitious yet’.

The vision for the exhibition is inspired by the artist’s visit to the Koestler Arts building, which currently holds over 6,500 artworks entered into this year’s Awards. Taken aback by the quantity of artworks and the range of categories on display, Ai Weiwei’s concept evolved; to be as inclusive as possible and to let the artwork show how humanity responds when put in extreme circumstances. This year, the exhibition space at the Southbank Centre will be transformed physically to realise this vision, which will help to preserve the environment within which the artworks are made. The aim is to not ‘translate’ the work but to retain the wholeness of it. Ai Weiwei explained this idea with an analogy: he wants to present the forest, not just a branch that comes from it.

During his curation period, the artist also visited HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, which is situated next to the Koestler Arts Centre. Having visited many prisons around the world, as well as experiencing his own restriction of freedom during a period of secret detention and constant surveillance in China, this additional visit to HMP Wormwood Scrubs helped to strengthen and confirm the vision for the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei Studio
Courtesy of the artist

Ai Weiwei comments: “This exhibition focuses on the role that the act of thinking and creating plays in life under constraints. Notable works of art and literature in history were created when the artist was restricted, oppressed, and challenged, rather than being completely free. The language and feelings that emerged from these conditions are much more profound, convincing, and powerful.

I visited different prisons in the UK and saw the living conditions of different kinds of prisoners. I hope that this exhibition can inspire people to reflect upon the loss of freedom and those that continue to create art to fight for space in life and freedom of expression despite adversity.”

Despite the severe knock-on effects that Covid has had on prisons, which are only now beginning to return to ‘normal’, nearly 3,000 artists have worked to create artwork for this year’s Koestler Awards. These figures reinforce the motivation behind this year’s exhibition.

Mirroring Koestler Arts’ philosophy, Ai Weiwei wrote, “expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity”.

The exhibition will showcase artwork created by and submitted to the 2022 Koestler Awards by individuals in prisons, secure mental health facilities, immigration removal centres, young offender institutions and on community sentences across the UK. The exhibition will be presented to the public by ex-prisoner exhibition hosts who have received specialist training to lead tours, answer questions and share their first-hand experience of the importance of art and creativity for those within the criminal justice system.

©2022 Ai Weiwei, Koestler Arts