Ai Weiwei’s name is on everyone’s lips these days. Artist, agent provocateur and political prisoner, he is rarely out of the news around the world.
He shot the fame in Britain after his sunflower seeds installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010. Since then he’s received worldwide acclaim and notoriety.
This month marks the last chance to see the first major survey of his work ever held in the UK at the Royal Academy in London. Bridging over two decades of his extraordinary career, this is a blockbuster show that you won’t want to miss.
Artist as activist
Walk into the Royal Academy’s entrance and you can’t miss Ai Weiwei’s large installation – a forest of trees – which dominates the courtyard.
‘Tree’ is made from parts of dead trees brought from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jiangxi province. Ai has transported these to his studio in Beijing where they have been made into fully ‘restored’ trees.
The work has been compared to the modern Chinese nation, where ethnically diverse people have been brought together to form ‘One China’, a state-sponsored policy designed to promote China’s sovereignty.
What I love about Ai Weiwei is that he doesn’t pull any punches. His work is always provocative, brave and visionary.
Curated in collaboration with Ai Weiwei from his studio in Beijing, the exhibition showcases some of his most important works from the time he returned to China from the USA in 1993 to the present day.
This London exhibition is particularly impressive as several new pieces have been created specifically for the show, both indoors and outdoors. We’re also treated to a review of earlier works made from a wide range of materials including marble, steel, tea (yes, tea – I am not joking) and glass.
I love the challenging themes which Ai Weiwei tackles in his work, from creative freedom and censorship to human rights, contemporary Chinese art and society.
One of the most impressive works in the RA show is ‘Straight’, a commentary on the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008.
Ai filmed the conditions in the disaster area following the earthquake and was highly critical of the government’s lack of transparency in revealing names of students who perished in the earthquake due to substandard school campus constructions.
Ai launched a Citizens’ Investigation to compile names and information of the student victims which he published on his blog which was closed down by the Chinese authorities. Those same names are featured as part of his art work in the Royal Academy show. It’s a powerful piece which makes you reflect about freedom of information and the state.
The work is made up of 150 tonnes of steel reinforcing bars which Ai recovered from the site of the earthquake. Covering the walls are the names of 5,000+ students who died in the disaster. It’s a powerful and seismic work that has the power to rock your inner soul.
Ai Weiwei says that most of his art is about the conditions of Chinese life. Another of his compelling pieces is a film and installation about the political argument about his Shanghai studio.
The building was designed and built by Ai as part of a new cultural area designated by municipal authorities. But the artist became embroiled in an argument and was accused of erecting the studio without planning permission.
A demolition notice was ordered and Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest by the Chinese police. In his absence, a crab dinner was thrown by 1,000 of Ai’s supporters to mark the studio’s destruction.
Reflecting on this event, Weiwei created a large pile of porcelain crabs, currently heaped up in one corner of the Royal Academy. Crab is a Chinese symbol of harmony and the irony is not lost on the viewer as one solo crab escapes from the group.
Chinese culture is thrown under the spotlight throughout the exhibition. Brightly coloured Chinese vases dipped in high-chrome paint make the viewer question the veracity and value of these pieces.
They appear to question the tension between China’s past cultural heritage and the nation’s relentless drive towards modernisation, sometimes at any cost.
There’s also a strange sculptural assemblage of Chinese Qing stools which form a spiky star-like formation. Some critics have said that these represent human communities coming together in opposition to communism. A symbol of a common fight, perhaps? Alternatively, they could be celebrating a re-assembly of artisan culture? Make your own mind up.
Ai Weiwei is most famous for being a critic of the Chinese government whom he has openly attacked, criticising its stance on democracy and human rights.
His story becomes darker in 2012 when he was arrested at Beijing Airport and held for 81 days without any charges being brought. What follows sounds like the plot of a spy movie.
Police officers searched his studios and took away computers as well as detaining and questioning his staff and family members.
Later, the authorities declared that they were investigating “alleged economic crimes”. There was worldwide shock at the artist’s arrest and treatment.
His numerous run-ins with the authorities are reflected in Weiwei’s art works including a marble surveillance camera and film kit.
In June 2011, Ai Weiwei was released from jail after nearly three months’ detention on charges of tax evasion. Weiwei is restricted from talking about his experiences but there have been hints that he endured a form of psychological torture.
During his confinement, it is known that he was detained in a tiny room with glaring light, and that he was closely guarded at all times.
His traumatic experiences are captured in ‘Sacred’, a series of six steel boxes which chronicle his prison life. Gazing inside through a small letterbox hole you get an overwhelming sense of confinement and claustrophobia.
Each box is powerful and frightening. We see Ai Weiwei taking a shower, eating dinner and being interrogated by guards. This ‘freeze frame’ moment in 3D has a rare power to shock and disturb the viewer.
Ai has recreated the detail to the last inch, remembering every single bit of his cell. His resistance and resilience shine through this grim ‘chamber of psychological horrors’.
This is an astonishing work that sums up everything you need to know about the artist Ai Weiwei – and sends you away with troubling thoughts.
Whatever happens in the next phase of Ai Weiwei’s career, it is well worth remembering the great man’s own words about his artistic legacy:
“The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.”
But this exhibition isn’t all death and destruction, there are lighter touches too, even if they do critique Chinese culture and society.
One of these highlights is Ai Weiwei’s spectacular bicycle chandelier which at first glance looks like an opulent piece of Chinese decorative art.
Historically, Forever Bicycles was the nation’s most popular cycle brand, a symbol of individual freedom, but they are rarely seen today in Shanghai.
Could the spiralling bikes be seen a vision for the future where free movement and freedom of speech are restored to China? Whatever you take away, it’s a fitting finale to a great show.
Perhaps the final words should be left with Ai Weiwei himself – “Art is not an end but a beginning”.
This show lingers long after you’ve left the gallery. When people ask ‘what is the meaning of art’, it’s sometimes hard to answer. But with Ai Weiwei, art is much more that just art. It’s a battleground and a potential force for free speech.
Tammy’s Guide – Ai Weiwei in London
Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy in London until 13 December 2015. Tickets for the show are priced at £16 (concessions available). The Royal Academy website has a blog series about the creation of the exhibition and the works featured,
Don’t forget that the Royal Academy is open late on Friday nights.
The nearest Tube stations to the Royal Academy are Green Park and Piccadilly.