LONDON • The opening of Bri- tain's largest ever survey of Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts on Saturday featured an important and, until recently, unexpected, guest - the Chinese artist-activist himself.
Two months ago, he had no right to leave China; his passport had been taken away. The last time he attended the opening of one of his own international shows was at Tate Modern in 2010.
The restrictions have in no way affected his ubiquity on the global art scene. By his own count, he has staged more than 100 solo shows and taken part in 350 group shows since 2004, most of them outside of China. Another 20 solo exhibitions are coming up in the next two years.
"I am really like a superintendent in a big building, just running up and down to fix all the pipes. My phone flashes like a Christmas tree," Ai, 58, whose passport was returned this summer, said last week at his London hotel.
He has played a big role in his Royal Academy show, which runs till Dec 13, including drawing up the layout plans and choosing pieces remotely.
Forty-five works from 1985 to today - many of them recycling ancient Chinese artefacts, temple fragments and antique furniture - are arranged in neatly ordered groups across 11 galleries.
The two largest installations are the most powerful - S.A.C.R.E.D. (2012), a diorama which represents Ai's secret 81-day detention in 2011, and Straight (2008-2012), a floor sculpture made of steel reinforcing bars salvaged from shabbily built schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing more than 5,000 children.
The show is to "reconnect people with what Ai Weiwei does, rather than who he is," said Mr Adrian Locke, who curated it with Royal Academy artistic director Tim Marlow. "We want people to think of him as more than a thorn in the side of the Chinese government."
The survey ushers in a new phase in Ai's career, during which he plans to spend a lot of time in Europe. He has a three-year guest professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts, where his six-year-old son, Ai Lao, has just started school.
Some critics are wondering, however, whether the works he makes outside China will be as compelling as the art from within.
Ai said in the interview that he was up to the task. "I want to forget about China and do something which surprises me," he said.
"Why do I have to be labelled? I'm not a car seller. Nothing can replace freedom and that's a challenge, and I'm ready for that."
NEW YORK TIMES