Ai Weiwei holds a copy of "Treadmill," a limited edition print on glossy aluminum. (courtesy Damocle Edizioni)

Julian Assange’s treadmill, which he sent to Ai Weiwei in October 2016 while he was still at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, four years after taking refuge there, is the subject of a new and intriguing print edition by the artist. Printed on glossy aluminum by Damocle Edizioni, a publishing house in Venice, “Treadmill” depicts Assange’s token of appreciation for Ai’s outspoken support of him.

“My views on Assange have not changed,” Ai told Hyperallergic from Rome, where he is directing a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot at the Teatro dell’Opera that opened this week. “He truly represents a core value of why we are free: It’s because we have freedom of speech and a free press. His imprisonment marks the collapse of a free and civilized society.” 

The original concept came from “Yours Truly,” a postcard writing component of the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz in 2014. Visitors were invited to compose messages of hope to political prisoners whose plight was highlighted in the exhibition. 

500 aluminum prints and 500 aluminum prints in inverted colors, numbered and hand-signed by Ai Weiwei (courtesy Damocle Edizioni)

In June 2021, Damocle Edizioni’s founder Pierpaolo Pregnolato visited Ai in Lisbon, the Chinese artist’s new home, on the occasion of his solo exhibition Rapture at Cordoaria Nacional. Earlier in the day they had spoken about Assange. Ai repeated his view that it was important to take a stance on Assange’s arrest in Britain following an extradition request by the United States for leaking state secrets. 

As they were about to part ways after the opening of Rapture, Ai took out the treadmill postcard he had designed from the inner pocket of his jacket. “Think if anything can be done about this project,” the artist told Pregnolato. That same day, Ai had learned that Firstsite, a British visual arts organization based in Colchester, had turned down his submission of “Treadmill” for The Great Big Art Exhibition in 2021.

Nothing convincing came out of some test runs Pregnolato did on paper a few months later, when Ai briefly met with him in Venice. Then, in late December, Ai asked Pregnolato to accompany him to Syracuse, Sicily. All things came together there. 

Pregnolato suddenly remembered the wood and felt postcards by German artist Joseph Beuys he had seen at the K20 and K21 museum complex in Düsseldorf. “This is a postcard but it is also an object,” Pregnolato told Hyperallergic, thinking of a metallic medium for the treadmill project. “Metal can represent a thousand things.”

The prints are displayed at the window of Damocle Edizioni in Venice. In the background, publisher Pierpaolo Pregnolato (Avedis Hadjian/Hyperallergic)

While discussing the idea with Ai, Pregnolato wondered about the possibility of inverting the colors, as in a negative print, evoking Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair” (1971). “What they are trying to make of Assange is a destruction, a breakdown of the person,” Pregnolato said. “How do you break an image down? You break the image down into colors.”  

Pregnolato concedes the issue of Assange is complicated; some may not care about him, while others have strong opinions. The US accuses Assange of hacking into the computers of its intelligence agencies, but to his supporters, he is the victim of a smear and persecution campaign for exposing previously unknown US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. In April 2019, Ecuador revoked Assange’s political asylum and he was arrested by British police. 

Ai’s prints come in two versions — the photo of the treadmill and its negative. On the reverse of each is an inscription: the address of the London prison where Assange is held.

Avedis Hadjian is a journalist and writer based in Venice. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. His work as a correspondent has taken him to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet...