By Rachel Lankester.
Ai Weiwei’s retrospective at the Royal Academy is a feast for the eyes and a fascinating deep dive into the life of one of the trickiest thorns in the Chinese government’s side. Ai Weiwei is China’s pre-eminent contemporary artist and also its most high profile and controversial dissident.
He delights in rocking the Chinese boat and this exhibition, a big middle finger up to the Chinese authorities, continues his tradition of challenging the status quo. Ai Weiwei picks at the scabs of Chinese censorship, surveillance and corruption, while simultaneously exploring the beautiful intricacies and anomalies in his country’s ancient history.
With the audio guide for the exhibition, you’ll not only experience phenomenal art, but learn more about China in an hour or so than by reading hundreds of media articles. It’s an absolute must see if you like great art and are interested in the impact China already has and will have in the future.
Ai Weiwei is a highly successful artist by global standards. He employs a huge staff of dedicated workers and craftsmen who enable him to create his monumental artworks like the porcelain sunflower seeds exhibit at Tate Modern in 2010. Like many contemporary artists, he has always courted controversy, but his brand of debate has been punishable by detention and passport removal in China.
One of the most moving exhibits is Straight, thousands of pieces of metal rods recovered and meticulously straightened after being completely mangled in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They are a distressing memorial to the 70,000 who died, most under buildings built shoddily and with cheap materials. They lie as metaphorical fingers pointed at the corrupt officials who took bribes and approved corner-cutting in construction, to line their own pockets, rather than provide adequate buildings.
Alongside the vast undulating swath of straightened metal rods are the names, ages and schools of the 5,000 children, in class at the time the quake hit, who died as inadequate school buildings collapsed. There is also a video of personally accumulated footage of the immediate aftermath of the quake and the laborious process of straightening the metal rods.
Art like this, Ai’s public challenging of human rights abuses and his vociferous presence on social media (he has nearly 300k followers on Twitter today having had his blog and Twitter feed shut down in China in 2009) resulted in his detention for 81 days in March 2011 and the loss of his passport for 4 years. Ai was previously beaten when he tried to testify for an investigator into the shoddy construction and student deaths in the earthquake. He ended up needing emergency brain surgery when on a trip to Germany in 2009.
He only got his passport back just before the final stages of the installation of this exhibition, and the art and social media world rejoiced as a result. When he was charged with tax evasion after the 2011 arrest, a charge which Ai declares is fake, donations poured in from fans worldwide and money was thrown over the wall of his Beijing compound.
His experience of detention was recorded in a play ‘The arrest of Ai Weiwei’ at the Hampstead Theatre and is vividly recreated towards the end of the RA exhibition when the viewer is invited to peer through small windows, like a voyeur, into six versions of the small cell in which he was held. In each, Ai is going about his daily life, eating, sleeping, washing, defecating. At all times there are two guards stationed at arms length silently watching, a tactic Ai says was designed to break him.
It is a profoundly uncomfortable lesson in present day Chinese justice and the experience of ‘being disappeared’ which still happens alarmingly often to those expressing a controversial opinion in China. The wallpaper surrounding these miniature chambers highlights Ai’s use of social media, in particular Twitter, the handcuffs used to restrain him and the surveillance cameras that are a constant feature of his life. In another room he displays a surveillance camera carved out of marble as well as a gas mask, highlighting the pollution which impacts daily life as much as government control.
Elsewhere we are invited to explore the modification of ancient objects into new and often ‘useless’ items. He cuts Qing dynasty tables and positions their legs against the wall, a traditional ornate bed-frame is filled with debris from the earthquake, and stools and wood from destroyed temples are redeployed as a 3D map of China in which the exhibition goer can wander at will, unlike the Chinese in their own country.
The famous photographs of Ai dropping a Ming dynasty vase are displayed, ancient urns are painted over with industrial paint, other are ground up and displayed as dust in jars such as you would find in a Chinese apothecary. Ai forces us to answer the question, is the precious ancient object now less valuable because of its altered state? And does any of it really matter?
He plays with materials and textures, twisting expected norms and challenging the viewer to still appreciate their innate beauty. His installation of 770 hexagonal shapes of marble grass complete with marble pushchair is breathtaking.
Finally, as one reluctantly leaves the exhibition, you see an enormous and elaborate chandelier. When you look carefully, you see that it is made up of bicycles stacked one on top of the other. It is modelled on the grand chandeliers in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.
Something once a prominent symbol of Chinese communist life, the bicycle, is now discarded in favour of cars that choke the cities, but here up-cycled to symbolise the extreme and ostentatious wealth to which many present day Chinese citizens aspire.
The exhibition is on at the Royal Academy until 13th December. Go once, go twice. If you’re in London definitely go.
You can see Ai Weiwei giving the BBC a tour of the exhibition here.
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Rachel Lankester is the founder and editor of the Mutton Club. She has a background in corporate communications and sustainability, but has now found her passion helping women to feel good about life at any stage and particularly midlife. She’s rather introverted but still has an awful lot she wants to communicate to the world! She also has an enduring passion for all things Chinese.