Irreverent and visionary, Ai Weiwei is possibly 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 exhibition takes a view on his work, his core values, and his complicated relationship with the Chinese government. In 11 rooms, we have a distillation of the work of the ‘Marcel Duchamp’ of our time.
The vast spaces of the Royal Academy provide the perfect setting for the magniloquent works of Ai Weiwei. The very first room hosts the sculpture ‘Bed’ (2010), made of tieli wood, a traditional Chinese material. What is most striking abou the sculpture is the highly unconventional nature of the work: it 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: the fascination of Ai Weiwei with history and ancient materials, his art practice entrenched in China’s political situation, and his prodigious way of 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, making it ‘climb’ a wall. These two works programmatically show Ai Weiwei’s mode of approaching history, both preserving it and moulting it into unconventional shapes.
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 68,000 victims. Ai Weiwei 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. Ai Weiwei seems to be saying that, had the schools been built properly from the very beginning, straightening the bars 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 Weiwei compiled a list of 5,192 names of schoolchildren killed in the earthquake, which the government refused to publish, and are now on display on the walls of the same room. The list of names strikes for its length and for the age of the victims: one of them was born exactly on the same day and year as the friend I was seeing the exhibition with. Behind every single name there is a life cut short (also) by the corruption and negligence of the local authorities. In this way, Ai Weiwei’s message combines colossal dimensions with human intensity.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Straight’ (2008)
One can easily see why such an artist was not left undisturbed by the Chinese government. ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’ (2012) is a cubic installation made of bricks and stone rubble coming 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. Enforcements of this kind, however, are unprecedented, and the demolition of the art studio was clearly motivated by the government’s will to repress Ai Weiwei’s voice. 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 have a glimpse and 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) and Ai Weiwei’s stoic resistance and imperturbability somewhat recalls that of Socrates and Jesus.
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 few works in marble, where everyday life objects such as prams, grass, and security cameras are sculpted in the material associated with China’s imperial past. Elsewhere, this interest takes a more minimalistic shape, with cubes made of crystal, hardwood, tea leaves, and ebony respectively. But perhaps the most fascinating and memorable material is porcelain, featuring in several of his works, from the famous ‘Dropping a Hun Dynasty Urn’ (1995) to ‘Coloured Vases’ (2015), where vases from both the Neolithic and the Hun dynasty have been painted in bright colours. Metaphorically, modernity is presented as covering (and flattening) everything. Colour is also dripped from the bottom of the urns, making them defy gravity and almost go back in time.
Background: Ai Weiwei, ‘Dropping a Hun Dynasty Urn’ (1995)
Foreground: Ai Weiwei, ‘Coloured Vases’ (2015)
The exhibition at the Royal Academy succeeds in showcasing the manifold works of Ai Weiwei, combining his political engagement and his aesthetic concerns. The exhibition is worthwhile seeing also because, in ten years’ time, Ai Weiwei will probably be regarded as a landmark of the art of the early 21st century. In many ways, he already is.