London prepares for Ai Weiwei exhibit with Chinese artist now free to travel

Ai Weiwei travel ban lifted
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Story highlights

  • Royal Academy of Art in London using crowdfunding to pay for major exhibition
  • Passport returned to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei this week after four years
  • Artist may be able to attend London exhibition opening in September

London (CNN)The Royal Academy of Art in London received a surprise this week in the form of what may have been an inadvertent gift from the Chinese government.

The academy has been working to prepare a major exhibition of the work of Ai Weiwei, China's most prolific contemporary artist and a prominent dissident. But now, suddenly free after four years to travel again, the artist may be able to attend the exhibition opening -- or even earlier, in time to work on it.
    Chinese authorities confiscated Ai's passport in 2011. This week, on Wednesday, it was suddenly returned to him.
    It was a moment the 57-year old wanted very much to share. He posted a photo of himself -- and the passport -- on Instagram for his 121,000 followers to see.
    In an exclusive interview with CNN in Beijing. Ai Weiwei said, "My heart is at peace. I feel quite relieved."

    今天,我拿到了护照。

    A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

    London museum turns to crowdfunding for exhibit

    With Ai stuck in China, the Royal Academy of Art has been working with him remotely on the exhibition. Its reaction was one of joy upon hearing that Ai is now free to travel.
    "We are absolutely thrilled," said Tim Marlow, the Royal Academy's artistic director. "Having developed the whole idea of the exhibition between London and Beijing, it's wonderful that Ai Weiwei can come to London and have a role in the exhibition, rather than doing this from Beijing."
    For the first time, the museum has turned to crowdfunding -- soliciting donations in small amounts on the Internet -- to bring Ai's "Tree" installation to its historic London courtyard. The plan is to raise just over $155,000 to help move the trees -- which died naturally in the mountains of southern China -- from Beijing to London.

    Artist has been working on 'Tree' installation since 2009

    The crowdfunding campaign asks for a minimum donation equivalent to almost $8. In return, donors can receive a specially commissioned photograph of Ai in his Beijing studio and an invitation to the red carpet opening party at the Royal Academy.
    "This is not a model we use for a paid exhibition," Marlow said. "It's a one-off. It's a risk, and one worth taking, but we are quietly confident that we'll reach our goal."
    Moving the "Tree" installation to London will be a huge undertaking. But if it is successful, it will be a landmark exhibition.
    Ai has been working on his "Tree" series since 2009, buying bits of root, branch and trunk and then carefully piecing them together in his studio to create complete trees.
    Once at the Royal Academy, the eight enormous trees -- each about 23 feet (7 meters) tall -- will be displayed in the museum's courtyard.
    The last time Ai exhibited in London was in 2010, at the Tate Modern, when he filled the gallery's Turbine Hall with 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds. The exhibition was hugely popular.
    If the fund-raising is successful, the Royal Academy exhibition, is expected to open September 19.