“Everything is art. Everything is politics”, reads one of Ai Weiwei’s most famous quotations. True to this precept and “declaration of intent”, Ai’s eponymous exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts offers a moving, powerful and coherent insight into the artist’s practice and political commitment.
Born in 1957, the son of a dissident poet who spent much of his life in work camps, Ai Weiwei graduated from Beijing Film Academy before moving to the USA in 1981, and subsequently settling in New York in 1983, where he attended the Parsons School Of Design. In 1993 he returned to China, where he began to create works that, despite being deeply rooted in the Chinese tradition, reflect the influence Western culture (and Duchamp in particular) has had on his aesthetic approach. A leading and passionate defender of free speech and liberty in a country where individual’s rights are often denied, Ai has had several unpleasant encounters with the Chinese authorities. In 2009, he underwent emergency brain surgery after being brutally beaten by the police for trying to attend the trial of a fellow activist who had been investigating the deaths of more than 5,000 schoolchildren during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. More recently in 2011, he was illegally detained on charges of tax evasion, bigamy and pornography for 81 days and his passport confiscated. The document was then returned in July 2015, when he was allowed to travel to London and put the final touches to his show.
Spanning over two decades, from the early 90s onwards, the RA exhibition is Ai’s first major survey in the UK. Entering the first room, we are confronted by Bed (2010): unrolling like a carpet at our feet, it is a huge sculpture made from Tieli wood salvaged from temples of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). In the following room, we find Table and Pillar (2002): the single most important piece in the Furniture series, it is made from found objects dating back to the Manchu era.
Where the Chinese past is not preserved (or recovered, if you like), it is destroyed and irreversibly transformed. This is the case with Coloured Vases (2015), a collection of Neolithic vessels that Ai has painted to challenge and question conventions of value and authenticity. In the photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), we see the artist deliberately smashing an artefact to refer to the destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects during the Cultural Revolution, and to allude to the country’s pursuit of economic development at the expense of its artistic heritage.
Tragic events of China’s recent past and the artist’s own biography are also the focus of this show. With Straight (2008-12), a monumental installation made with two hundred tonnes of hand straightened steel rods whose form is inspired by those of seismic waves, Ai has created a poignant monument to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake that also serves as an indictment against those responsible for the building speculation in the region. No less remarkable is S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-23), a set of six iron boxes each of which contains a fibreglass diorama depicting the artist’s experience in solitary detention in 2011. Looking through the peepholes of each unit, we become witnesses of the harassment and humiliation suffered by the artist during his time behind bars.
Other highlights of the exhibition include: Surveillance Camera and Video Camera (2010), two hand carved marble sculptures that serve as an ironic commentary on China’s “surveillance policy”; Free Speech Puzzle (2014), a cry for freedom in the form of a map of Ai’s motherland made of traditional pendants; Remains (2015), a porcelain replica of the bones of an unknown intellectual who died in a labour camp during the Anti-rightist Movement (1957-59); and Sovenir from Shanghai (2012), an installation made with materials from the artist’s studio in Malu town, which was demolished in 2011 on orders of local authorities. The show also includes two site specific sculptural installations: Bicycle Chandelier, displayed in the Whol Central Hall, a chandelier made of Forever bicycles (a leitmotiv in Ai’s work), and, in the Annenberg Courtyard, Tree, consisting of eight trees, each measuring around seven meters tall. Made from real trees that have died in mountains of southern China, the installation has travelled to London thanks to a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that raised a record £123,577.
In a time where art seems to have lost not only its aura, but also its ambition to address topical issues and make big statements, Ai Weiwei stands like a giant among pygmies. Although Chinese authorities may want to dismiss him as a mere troublemaker, a thorn in the conscience of the country, he is anything but a threat to his homeland. As pointed out by Larry Warsh and J. Richard Allen in a book called Weiwei-isms (Princeton University Press, 2013), Ai Weiwei is a blessing to China and the world, for with his art, his life, his political stance, he reminds us that there is no real, enduring greatness where there is no freedom. Is there a more valuable lesson for our troubled times?
With this long overdue exhibition, the Royal Academy not only celebrates Ai’s artistic achievement; it as well honours his commitment to making China a fairer and freer country.
Ai Weiwei will be on display until 13th December at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari