Review: Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts

Irreverent and visionary, Ai Weiwei is perhaps one of the best-known and most influential contemporary artists. The Royal Academy of Arts has decided to dedicate him a retrospective (19 September – 13 December 2015). The eleven rooms of the exhibition offer a distillation of his work, his core values, and his complicated relationship with the Chinese government.

The vast spaces of the Royal Academy provide the perfect setting for Weiwei’s more magniloquent works. The very first room hosts a sculpture, Bed (2010), made of tieli wood, a traditional Chinese material. The work is a polished, sleek, cocoa-brown 3D map of China, but flattened out, as if the country had been pressed by a rolling pin. Bed introduces the visitor to three of the retrospective’s fils rouges: Ai’s fascination with ancient materials, an overt grappling with political subject matter, and his prodigious knack for thinking outside the box. In a similar fashion, Table with Three Legs (2008) casts a table from the Qing dynasty in a whole new perspective, positioning it so as to ‘climb’ a wall. Both works demonstrate Ai’s unique mode of historical preservation through transformation.

Ai Weiwei’s vocation to deal with current affairs is best seen in Straight (2008). The installation consists of 200 tons of lead bars, stacked on top of each other and arranged in wavy patterns. The bars come from the ruins of the schools destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which caused more than 69,000 casualties. Ai and his team went to the places stricken by the earthquake, collected a large number of deformed lead bars, and painstakingly set them straight again, one by one. Had the schools been built properly from the very beginning, Ai seems to say, such an act would not have been necessary. The artist here makes a powerful statement, alluding to the Sichuan schools corruption scandal, which involved allegations of corruption against the officials in charge of the construction of the local schools. In addition, Ai compiled a list of 5,192 names of schoolchildren killed in the earthquake, which the government refused to publish; these are now on display on the walls of the same room. Behind every single name there is a life cut short by the corruption and negligence of the local authorities. With Straight, Ai combines colossal dimensions with human intensity.

One can easily see why such an artist has been viewed uneasily by the Chinese government. Souvenir from Shanghai (2012) is a cubic installation made of bricks and stone rubble taken from his art studio, completed in October 2010 and demolished by the will of the Shanghai authorities in January 2011. Ai Weiwei was intimated to suspend the works, on the grounds that he had failed to obtain the proper building permits. The exhibition also tells of the artist’s own imprisonment, in April 2011, described by a series of huge black boxes, into which the visitor can see sculpted scenes of Ai Weiwei’s detention. The work is called S.A.C.R.E.D – Supper. Accusers. Cleansing. Ritual. Entropy. Doubt. (2011-13), the acronym perhaps seeking to link Ai’s stoic resistance and imperturbability to a messianic level.

Ai Weiwei’s interest in politics is accompanied by his fascination with traditional materials. As well as the already mentioned tieli wood sculptures, the exhibition features a handful of works in marble, with everyday life objects from prams and grass to security cameras sculpted in the material associated with China’s imperial past. Elsewhere, this interest is manifested in a more minimalistic form, with cubes made of crystal, hardwood, tea leaves, and ebony. But perhaps the most fascinating and memorable material is porcelain, featuring in several of his works, from the famous photographic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) to Coloured Vases (2015), where vases from both the Neolithic and the Han dynasty have been painted in bright colours. Modernity is presented here as covering (and flattening) everything.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy succeeds in showcasing the manifold works of Ai Weiwei, combining his political engagement and his aesthetic concerns. In ten years’ time, Ai Weiwei will probably be regarded as a landmark of early 21st century art. In many ways, he already is.

Anna Zanetti

The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts runs until 13 December 2015. More information can be found here.

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