Ai Weiwei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London | Ai Weiwei returns to make his mark on London.
contemporary Artist, sculpture, architect, political activist. Ai Weiwei returns to make his mark on London. Showing his first major exhibition and bold retrospective of his work at the RA… finally here to witness it all unfold
Highly acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was last in London in 2010, when the he filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. Not only was this the last time he was in London, but it was the last time he was present for any, of his some 100 exhibitions over the last five years.
Controversial, outspoken, and unafraid. Ai’s work commands global attention and acclaim. As a political activist, he has been beyond courageous, highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. As an artist he’s pushed boundaries and created work which mirrors the beauty and also the beast of his surroundings.
However sadly this has not always come without consequence. Including the unexpected demolition of his studio a few years back, being constantly watched under government surveillance and his unexplained arrest in 2011. An arrest where he was detained and imprisoned for 81 days without an official charge, his passport withheld, and accused of tax evasion. Given a hefty fine of over £1 million to be paid within fifteen days.
Now having finally been granted back his passport, Ai’s excitement is beyond tangible. Making the timing of the RA’s retrospective not only fitting for a celebration of Ai Weiwei’s prolific artistic output but also his bravery, determination, and freedom to finally witness the fruits of his labour.
For the past few years Ai Weiwei has described himself as becoming ‘the best remote-control artist’ in the world. Directing each installation of his exhibitions with his international teams via Skype and the internet to the smallest detail. That was up until now of course…
Adrian Locke, co-curator of the exhibition comments “Ai has greatly enjoyed the installation of his exhibition at the Royal Academy, constantly taking photos, finding time to sign autographs and take selfies with visitors as well as engaging with the technicians on site. For him, being part of the process has been an emotional one, as it is nearly five years since he was directly involved with overseeing an exhibition of this scale and complexity being put together”
Moving through the rooms at the RA the sheer mass, and poetic delicacy of Ai’s work is breathtaking. Each piece a multitude of layers and meanings. Whether ceramic, sculpted jade, porcelain, or recovered wood from the Qing dynasty. The patience, and meticulous detail of Ai’s work is unprecedented.
Key installation Straight 2008-2012 ( a body of work related to the Sichuan earthquake) includes 200 hundred tonnes of twisted, bent rebar from the poorly constructed concrete schools which collapsed and killed thousands during the earthquake. Ai Weiwei collected these and he and his team painstakingly straightened each one by hand. This is accompanied by two murals running the length of the gallery walls entitled Sichuan Namelist, which display the names of the thousands who perished in the earthquake.
Photography piece Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn shows Ai ‘s mischievous side, in a three part series of images where he is seen nonchalantly dropping what appears to be a Han Dynasty Urn. Overtly referring to the wilful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects which took place during the decade following Chairman Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’.
More tender and introspective works include his I.O.U Wallpaper. A note he wrote to the thousands of individuals who threw money over the wall of his compound when he was accused of tax evasion, promising to pay back every cent of the money that was given to him. In the final gallery Ai’s reconstructed diorama series S.A.C.R.E.D. reveals memorised and recreated scenes to demonstrate how degrading and claustrophobic his time was detained in prison. An experience designed to break his spirit and discourage him from further publicly challenging the Chinese government.
New installations come from pieces such as his grand, twinkling bike chandelier. A piece made from China’s popular Forever bicycles, and his monumental site specific work Tree displayed in the RA’s courtyard. Consisting of 8 individual trees, each measuring 7 metres tall, Tree is the largest installation of Ai’s work to date.
Ai Weiwei is the most famous and possibly most beloved artist in the world, and what makes him so worthy of the title is that his work is endlessly dynamic and without limits. It’s brutally honest, vulnerable and compassionate. He’s humorous and sneaky with pieces like his opulent Chinese jade dildos displayed in a glass case, or wallpaper featuring kaleidoscope arms giving the middle finger. Whether working as a photographer, sculpture, painter or architect, he’s a master of his medium. Despite the struggles and adversity he’s witnessed and protested against his pieces are intertwined with symbolism, tradition, and simplistic beauty. He’s bold and infectious and the art world and certainly this exhibition in London all made a bit better for it.
19 September – 13 December 2015
Words by Tracy Kawalik
Photos by Tracy Kawalik and the Royal Academy