The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy on Piccadilly in London has been calling out to me for some time, but it was only its impending close that sparked me into activity, that and some very strong recommendations from friends.
My timed ticket was for 10 am and I arrived in the courtyard at the front of the Royal Academy with a few minutes to spare. I was confronted by huge wooden trees. Well, I know what you’re thinking – trees are usually made of wood aren’t they? Well not always at the Royal Academy! Anyway, these were sculptures of trees made out of wood that had been recycled from ancient Chinese temples. Little did I know that recycling of old materials was to become a theme in the exhibition that I was about to explore.
But first, which queue to join? There were definitely two queues, but as far as one could see no explanation as to why. The people in the left-hand queue seemed, on the whole, to be holding more pieces of paper than the people in the right-hand queue. As I had a piece of paper I decided to join the left-hand queue and admired the huge banner of Ai Weiwei that festooned the front of the Royal Academy. He is a striking man, in his late 50s with a Confucius beard, or could he be the first Chinese Hipster? His face has a well lived in look and you get the feeling he would make a great dinner guest.
Ai Weiwei is probably China’s most famous modern day artist, not only for his work but also for his outspoken criticism of the Chinese regime. He may well be better known, by many, for his political dissent than for his art. Despite his strong stand on human rights, free speech and greater transparency in government, which has led him to being beaten by government agents, hospitalised, imprisoned and denied the right to travel, he has remained committed to making art.
His art often highlights the issues that he has experienced himself. Government harassment, imprisonment, surveillance are all areas that he addresses in this exhibition at the Royal Academy. The exhibition finishes in a few days, so it’s unlikely that you will get a chance to view it in London if you haven’t already, but if it ever comes to a city near you, I would recommend dropping in. If you do, make use of the audio guide. I usually shun audio guides, not really sure why, but I found this guide very useful and very informative.
People with audio guides prowl around the galleries slowly, rocking back and forwards on their heels, nodding sagely to the voices in their heads, never wanting to stray too far from the piece that is being described. They maintain eye contact with you, but their gaze is unfocused, they are not seeing you, as they listen intently, not wishing to miss exactly what message this huge pile of metal is meant to convey. The audio guide certainly turns a huge pile of reinforcing rods into a poignant story of tragedy and human perseverance.
The reinforcing rods were taken from the site of the devastating earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan. Many thousands of lives were lost because of shoddy building techniques that resulted from the corruption in the process of contract assignment. Tragically many children were killed in the earthquake due to their schools being constructed cheaply and badly. Ai Weiwei had the rods removed from the disaster site and taken to his workshop where they were painstakingly straightened and turned into a huge sculpture in honour of those who lost their lives, alongside huge panels detailing the names and ages of the dead. The Chinese government had been less than open about the events surrounding this disaster and the number of people who had lost their lives. Ai Weiwei had felt it was important to bring this to the attention of the world. It is decisions like this that make him less than popular with the government of China.
Another exhibit is made of the rubble from a workshop that Ai Weiwei had built in Shanghai. The local authorities had invited Ai Weiwei to build a workshop in their city. But on completion it was suddenly decided that the necessary permissions were not in place and a demolition order was issued. The night before the demolition Ai Weiwei held a party in the workshop, that he would never get to use, hundreds of porcelain crabs adorned a corner of the room. An apparent play on words, the word for crab being very similar to the word for harmony. I don’t suppose he felt a lot of harmony with the government over that decision. Ai Weiwei then used some of the rubble from this site to make a sculpture as a protest.
In the exhibition Ming vases are shockingly and humorously given a repaint in bright modern colours or ground to dust and put in glass jars. There is even a photographic sequence of Ai Weiwei dropping a Ming vase on the ground, where it shatters, not surprisingly.
One has to assume that not all Ming vases are priceless! A fantastic chandelier hangs from the ceiling, made up of the ubiquitous Chinese bicycles and crystals.
It’s art and political comment inextricably linked. The final exhibit shows vignettes of Ai Weiwei’s incarceration. Huge boxes contain models of Ai Weiwei and his jailers. During his imprisonment he was watched 24 hours a day by two uniformed men, whether he was sleeping, showering, eating or going to the toilet. You can peer over the tops of the boxes by standing on steps or in through small windows in the sides. It disturbingly conveys what must have been the claustrophobic experience of being under constant and close surveillance.
I really enjoyed the exhibition, its scale and its message. I wonder how Ai Weiwei’s art will develop as he finds himself feted in the rest of the world and finally free to travel away from his native country. Will he find himself even freer to shine a light on the short comings he perceives in China or will he find his interests diverted elsewhere? I suspect his art and his political views will always be inextricably linked.