by Hattie Hammans
From the 19th September to the 13th December, Ai Weiwei commands the main galleries of The Royal Academy of Arts with daring and emotive works.
“In today’s condition, I do not think that anybody can stop the exchange of ideas.” Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei’s mother was a writer, his father a prolific contemporary poet, and their family was exiled by Mao Zedong in the Cultural Revolution and then the Anti-Rightist movement. Sent to a labour camp at one year old with his mother, the family was only allowed to return to Bejing in 1976, after Mao’s death. These experiences and memories of his childhood and teenage years can only have affected his opinions on the state, and throughout his career, he has refused to abstain from provocative and scathing works that target the Chinese government. Ai has campaigned for human rights since his teenage years, following in the footsteps of his father, the activist. Seemingly unafraid to post his criticism of governmental policy on his blog, Weiwei came to the attention of the Chinese Government famously over the Sinchuan Earthquake in 2008. The Royal Academy exhibition is momentous for Weiwei; this is his first major exhibition in Britain. Ai is most well known in Britain for his 2011-2012 Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern but also being Artistic Consultant for Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, in building the Birds Nest stadium in Bejing.
In order to appreciate Weiwei’s work, as we might expect from contemporary art, context is key. We are reminded of Dadaism, a movement from the early 20th century that provoked Marcel Duchamp’s(1887-1968) invention of readymade art. Like Duchamp’s famous piece ‘Fountain’ 1917 (simply a signed urinal), we can only make sense of Weiwei’s art with context. As a student, Weiwei lived for a short time in New York, where he discovered American concept artists such as Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
Many of Weiwei’s sculptures are created from ‘found’ objects (for example, Table and Pillar, 2002). Without explanation,, many of the pieces appear lifeless and absurd. Weiwei uses objects that would be art in their own right; most famously his triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ and creates art from dropping a historic, invaluable urn, and smashing it. Similarly, by painting historic vases he explores the possibility of decreasing their value, or increasing their value by recreating them in a new fashion. And to push the concept even further, we are left unsure whether to trust Weiwei’s claims. Are the pots and furniture real antiques? Does this affect their value now? Weiwei poses the question: as any fake requires the same amount of skill as the original, it is of the same value?
There is certainly a sense of loss involved in these reinventions. It seems that things once revered, of high importance, can seem brushed aside in modern Chinese culture. For example, returning to Table and Pillar (2002), Weiwei used antique, beautiful objects from Imperial China. “Whereas that might have been a very treasured part of someone’s home in the past, people are now replacing such pieces with modern, mass-produced things,” explains Adrian Locke, the curator of the RA exhibition. Weiwei’s work pins as much importance on how things are made as what is being made. Recycling is clearly an element within his work; take for example, the bare trees standing enormously in the RA courtyard. Constructed from dead timber found in the south of China, these mismatched giants hold a Frankenstein-like beauty, and are typical of Weiwei’s work in that they have had a previous life, have been remade and now stand as a new piece. No corners have been cut, no one could claim that Weiwei, as a contemporary artist, lacks skill or imagination. Every piece he creates, with the help of his team in his studio, is packed with meaning be it ironic or sincere.
Yet even without their meaning each piece is beautiful; one thing Weiwei seems to be acutely aware of is the aesthetic appearance of his work. On old bicycle wheel frames dripping glass droplets are hung in wry splendour to create a glittering chandelier. Standing alone, with no writing or background understanding, Weiwei’s artwork is elegant yet never self-evident. Ambiguity is a possibility within his work. Even after leaving the Royal Academy, I still had space to contemplate and consider. Without doubt, the work of Ai Weiwei has a ‘point’; he is an artistic activist, a man unafraid to antagonise the Chinese Government through his work. If anything, after his incarceration of 81 days in 2011 under false accusations, Weiwei’s work has more fire and poignancy than ever before.
Weiwei is a keen user of social media, often using his blog or instagram (@aiww) as a medium for his art. This is evident in the show as Weiwei allows smartphones to be used and photographs to be taken throughout; from a more traditional perspective I felt the constant clicking and snapping irritating, and the hoards of people trying to get an unconventional angle on the art were distracting. With social media connection, despite being held in china under surveillance and unable to come to London, Weiwei can keep in touch with the viewers of his work.
In room three, we encounter ‘Straight’, a striking 90 tonne sculpture formed of steel rods. Despite being only a section of the entire piece from Weiwei's studio (in total 150 tonnes), it is the heaviest sculpture ever to be displayed in the london gallery. Breathtaking in size, the rebars are laid flat, piled over each other to form an undulating landscape that ripples down the hall. Despite being huge, the sculpture is not tall (ranging from a few inches to a foot high) allowing us to see a shallow but wide rupture running down the centre of the piece. Contextually, we know this piece is inherently a protest; on the walls of this room are names of schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sinchuan Earthquake.
After the tragic natural disaster, causing the deaths and disappearances of nearly 90,000 people (mostly schoolchildren, as the earthquake was during school hours) the government refused to publish the names of perished students, or perform public quality surveys on the schools. Weiwei, in protest, led a citizens investigation to survey the quality of the collapsed school buildings and asked on his blog for the names of children who were victims. Called ‘tofu-dreg’ buildings in China, the school buildings were found to be subpar, built with little regard to the children’s safety. Taking 200 tonnes of bent, fractured rebar from the rubble, Ai Weiwei and his team spent almost 2 years straightening out the rods.
The work is astounding, yet simple. The fault line running through the centre of the piece is a lucid depiction of tectonic plates, but it doesn't take much more consideration to imagine the potential meanings Weiwei could be asking us to reflect upon. These rusted steel rods were inadequate to contain the forces of nature and the work is a cry of help to the government. It is also unquestionably an accusation; Why did you create these substandard buildings that took the lives of our children? And why do you ignore your incompetence, putting more people’s future at risk? The piece is also in memorial to those who died, and its magnitude commands a stillness within a busy exhibition.
What was so significantly impressive about this work as you entered the room was its size. Constructed from salvaged pillars and beams of ‘Tieli’, Chinese ironwood, all salvaged from Qing dynasty temples, this work arches over the viewer and you are able to walk through it freely. The realisation that from above this work reveals an outline of China, makes our ability to stroll through the various regions slyly ironic. The piece is a comment on the difficulty that Chinese people find when trying to travel through their own country, juxtaposed with the foreign visitor's liberty to travel where they like. Weiwei himself has been barred by the government to travel out of his own country many times, and had been unable to fly to London during the planning of the exhibition.
Cao (2014): A new work for the RA exhibition. In Chinese, Cao means ‘Grass’.
Ai explains. “During the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912], this grass field (in the village of Caochangdi, where Ai’s studio is based) was used to feed the emperors’ horses. In Chinese poetry and literature, cao, or grass, is a frequently used reference to the common people, the masses. Grass is a force of nature, wild and everlasting. I thought it would be interesting, and a bit ironic, to create a monument of this common thing.”
The most crucial aspect of this work is its material, a white marble from the same quarry as the marble for the Forbidden City in the Ming period, and for Maos mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.
Hexagonal pieces (6cm by 5cm), each with three sprouts of marble grass, stretch out to form a hand chiselled lawn. The presence in this room of Weiwei’s other work in this same marble offer further association with the imperial past of china and Mao’s immortal presence. A surveillance camera, identical to the 20 placed around Ai’s home by the Chinese Government, and a Marble baby stroller, surrounded by the shoots of stone grass refers to an incident regarding surveillance of his child. This piece in itself is a marvel of masonry skill, marble being a brittle medium and difficult to chisel; but more importantly, Weiwei’s work with marble is another instance of his interest in material and its inherent connotation.
Picture of Cao: https://d1inegp6v2yuxm.cloudfront.net/royal-academy/image/upload/c_limit,dpr_1.0,f_auto,w_950/guidbwepaxc4tgieelln.jpg
‘I told the police: “Without you, I would never have become so noticeable as an artist”’ In an interview with the Guardian, Weiwei unashamedly explained that his political struggle has contributed to his increasing celebrity; however, many of his greatest works have been realised as a protest against that same state. The show is provocative, witty and accessible. Confronting changing Chinese values, the morality of surveillance, and the importance of natural disaster, Weiwei never lets up. His newfound prominence is justly deserved.
The RA is holding this show until the 13th of December. Due to demand for tickets, the exhibition is opened until midnight on selected Saturdays. A 5 star show.