Political art: Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Ai Weiwei’s work is full of contrasts and contradictions. They are at once robust and fragile, awkward and meticulously crafted, brutal and beautiful. The making reflects the message. Ai sculpts handcuffs from the precious jade, scribbles the Coca Cola logo on an ancient vase, and smashes another in a photographic sequence as a note on history, value, life.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts is the Chinese artist’s first retrospective in the UK – not necessarily an easy task given that his art is often in danger of being dwarfed by his other work. Ai is an artist, a poet, an architect and urbanist, a writer and blogger, a curator and an activist. He keeps extending the notion of art.

His art, films and writing collectively express his vision. Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him the ‘renaissance artist’. The curator and co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery says, ‘his holistic approach can be compared to that of Joseph Beuys as an interdisciplinary “social sculpture”.’*

Ai was born in Beijing in 1957. His father Ai Qing, regarded as one of the greatest modern Chinese poets, was accused of being anti communist, forbidden to write and exiled to the remote Xinjiang province, where the young Ai grew up during the Cultural Revolution.

He later moved to Beijing and learnt to draw from banned artists who were family friends, and drawing still remains at the core of his work. Ai studied at the Beijing Film Academy and later in New York at the Parsons School of Design before returning to China in 1993 to work as an artist.

From the start his work has been embedded in Chinese culture whilst reflecting the exposure he had had to Western art during his 12-year sojourn in the US. He sites the grandfather of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp as ‘the most, if not the only, influential figure’ in his art practice.

Ai’s work has been censored, he’s been arrested, spent time in solitary confinement (one display at the RA sees his every mundane daily movement meticulously, and movingly, recreated scene by scene), and has had his passport confiscated. The irony is he almost didn’t receive a British visa to attend this exhibition.

Ai works with traditional materials and methods, and with historic objects from Neolithic vases to Qing dynasty architectural components and furniture. New objects are formed from old to challenge conventions of value and authenticity in modern-day China. ‘I feel it’s very interesting to put a tremendous effort or art or craftsmanship into something useless, or even nameless,’ he tells Obrist *. And much like Duchamp, Ai’s work comes with a wonderful sense of humour.

The artist has a great gift for material and proportion. His installations are huge; some have such volume they occupy whole rooms at the RA. Ai offers multiple readings. You know you are faced with a work of art carrying the weight of a profound message even if you are unaware of what this may be.

Here the artist’s account of history, political and personal, is told with such fluidity and grace. What’s more, this intelligently curated exhibition allows each piece space to breath, whilst directing us from room to room so the whole show reveals itself as almost one singular installation.

The RA was packed on the random weekday afternoon we visited, young and old navigating the show with evident curiosity. They absorbed the written descriptions, mostly had hired the vocal guides and, unlike most exhibitions, not a whisper could be heard.

Political art often falls under slogan art becoming almost kitsch with its execution and delivery. Not here. You cannot help but be profoundly moved by Ai’s commentary on complex histories, value of material, the fragility of life, of human and historical loss.

He reminds us that today, possibly more than ever, we need cultural and political art. Ai says we are a part of the reality ‘and if we don’t realise that, we are totally irresponsible. We are a productive reality. We are the reality, but that part of reality means that we need to produce another reality.’ *

This is an exhibition not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

* The quotes are from Ai Weiwei Speaks, a series of interviews conducted over several years with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and highly recommend reading for greater insight into Ai’s work.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm © Ai Weiwei

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995:
Although Ai plays down the significance of this work referring to it as a ‘silly act’ Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn overtly refers to the wilful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects that took place during his formative years in the decade following Chairman Mao’s announcement of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Many may have been forgiven for thinking that such government-led acts of cultural vandalism might never been seen again. Yet Ai’s work also alludes to China’s pursuit of economic development which has been marked by a lack of protection provided by the authorities for the historic fabric of many of China’s towns and cities.

Table and Pillar, 2002. Wooden pillar and table from the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, 460 x 90 x 90 cm. London, Tate © Ai Weiwei

Table and Pillar, 2002:
Table and Pillar is the single most important work in the Furniture series, one of the first bodies of work that Ai made on his return to China in 1993. Conscious of the massive changes taking place in Beijing as China sought to modernise, Ai purchased material from Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temples and other buildings that were being dismantled to make way for new developments. Along with period furniture Ai created new pieces, making his interventions invisible through the use of traditional carpentry. In this way he subverted their intended function, making aesthetically and technically appealing but ultimately ‘useless objects’ in the process.

Straight, 2008-12. Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm Lisson Gallery, London © Ai Weiwei

Straight, 2008–12: Following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, Ai clandestinely collected some two hundred tonnes of bent and twisted rebar (the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings) destined for recycling which he transported to his studio in Beijing. Here it was straightened by hand, returned to the form it would have had before it was encased in concrete and then mis-shapened by the earthquake. Ai created this sober monument to the victims of the earthquake, the form subconsciously referencing those of seismic waves, whilst also commenting on the sub-standard building methods applied in the delivery of regional government construction projects.

i.O.U. Wallpaper, 2011-13 © Ai Weiwei

I.O.U Wallpaper, 2011–2013:
In 2011 Ai was illegally detained for 81 days. On his release he was accused of tax evasion and presented with a fine of over £1 million to be paid within fifteen days. Thousands of individuals offered their support often in the form of small donations, some made literally by throwing packets of money over the wall of his compound in Caochangdi. In this way people showed their support for his actions and identified with him as a ‘spokesman’ for the ordinary person, one who stood for the rights of the individual. Ai wrote a promissory note for each donation he received, vowing to repay every single contribution that helped him settle his tax bill.

Coloured Vases, 2006. Neolithic vases 5000-3000 BC with industrial paint, dimensions variable © Ai Weiwei

Coloured Vases, 2015:
Since his return to China in 1993, Ai has systematically engaged with ceramics. He purchases historic vessels, ranging from Neolithic pottery to Qing Dynasty porcelain, in markets and from antique dealers. These are grouped and classified by period and style before his interventions. Ai is very conscious that markets are full of fakes being sold as originals, and that only experts can distinguish between them. The creation of forgeries interests him since the same skill and traditions used to create the originals are used to create modern versions. The question of authenticity is, therefore, central to this body of work. By extension, he is also interested in value. Is a Neolithic vase dipped in paint more valuable as a contemporary artwork than it was before? In China, which is so marked by rapid change and development, Ai exposes the tension between old and new.

Marble, 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm; Video Recorder, 2010 © Ai Weiwei

Surveillance Camera, 2010:
As an outspoken critic of the government, Ai’s studio residence in Caochangdi has been under surveillance by the authorities for many years. To this end there are at least twenty cameras trained on his compound, conspicuously attached to buildings and telegraph poles especially since Ai has attached a red lantern below each one. By making a marble version Ai references Ming dynasty (1368–1644) tomb offerings where everyday objects were made in precious materials and interred alongside members of the Imperial family in an ostentatious display of power and wealth. Here the hand carved marble camera serves no function other than decorative as it cannot witness or record anything.

Remains, 2015. Porcelain, dimensions variable; Surveillance Camera, 2010. © Ai Weiwei

Remains, 2015:
In 1958, when Ai was still a child, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, was denounced as a criminal during a state-sponsored crackdown, known as the Anti-Rightist Movement, aimed at silencing intellectuals against collectivisation. Ai Qing and his family were sent to a military re-education camp in the northwest province of Xinjiang where they lived in appalling conditions until 1976 when he was rehabilitated. A recent clandestine archaeological excavation uncovered a group of bones, the remains of an unknown intellectual who perished under similar circumstances in a labour camp. These bones were brought to Ai who replicated them in meticulous detail in porcelain. The work commemorates the suffering of his father and thousands of others during the brutal regime of Chairman Mao.

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014. Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, 51 x 41 x 0.8 cm © Ai Weiwei

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014:
The slogan ‘Free Speech’ decorates each of the individual porcelain ornaments that collectively form a map of China. Ai has produced numerous Map works in disparate materials, such as wood, milk powder cans and cotton, over the past twenty years. The components of Free Speech Puzzle are based on traditional pendants made of various materials such as wood, porcelain or jade, depending on the wealth of the individual, that bore a family’s name and served as a marker of status and as a good- luck charm for the wearer. Through the multiple pieces Ai creates a rallying cry that reflects the distinct geographic and ethnic regions that together form modern China and which, despite their differences, ought to have the right to free speech as their principal common denominator.

‘Ai Weiwei’, supported by Lisson Gallery, is at the Royal Academy, London from 19 September to 13 December 2015. 

Read our previous articles on Ai Weiwei here.

Also have a look at Ai’s jewellery here.

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