The opening of the exhibition was timed to coincide with Ai’s passport, and right to travel, being reinstated by the Chinese government after it was confiscated in 2011. So much of his art is concerned with the political climate of China: its oppressiveness, and the struggle it stages between tradition and rampant innovation. This latter friction seems to be the catalyst and inspiration behind much of Ai Weiwei’s work. Often, it is staged very literally. Ai’s art is as much concerned with activism as it is with aesthetics. A diligent Duchamp enthusiast as a student, Ai’s manifesto is frequently expressed through the use of the ready-made. Duchamp is ‘nodded to’ in this piece, in which a coathanger has been twisted into the shape of his profile, and the hook left to suggest a question mark:
Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy
The Plinth team braves the Friday night crowds to catch an exhibition of one of the world's most important contemporary artists before it ends on December 13th.
Ai’s art is as much concerned with activism as it is with aesthetics.
This technique proves a neat means by which Ai can both ‘honour’ and ‘desecrate’ traditional objects, and interrogate China’s conflicting investments in the modern and the ancient. ‘Grapes’ – a circle made of Qing dynasty stools – makes for a striking sculpture, whilst interrogating the delicacy of the artisanal by repurposing the objects in a way which negates all function, leaving only form.
The same problem is tackled in a piece where the artist has emblazoned the Coca Cola logo onto a vase, 2,000 years old. It’s hard to look at, although the ancient grey and the familiar red prove to be a pleasant combination. This piece needles the art-gallery-goer in a particularly sensitive spot. The art establishment holds an enormous amount of reverence for The Original, The Art Object, The Museum Piece. We are not allowed to touch them, let alone scribble slogans: this, though, is precisely what makes this sculpture so provocative, and clear analogies are to be drawn between, say, loss of tradition in favour of modernisation; destruction of ancient countryside to make way for tower blocks; redundancy of old ways of life in favour of global consumerism. In any case, it is a piece which tackles the reconciliation of two opposing concepts. Here, the conflict is literally forced into view, and two ideologies are forced to occupy the same physical space. It is left to the viewer to decide whether they exist in harmony, or not.
The art establishment holds an enormous amount of reverence for The Original, The Art Object, The Museum Piece. We are not allowed to touch them, let alone scribble slogans: this, though, is precisely what makes this sculpture so provocative.
The (most) glaring lessons are to be learnt from works like ‘Straight’, whose political implications could not be clearer were they written on the wall – which they are. ‘Straight’ consists of 90 tonnes of hand straightened metal rods from the rubble of the schools which fell in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The names of the 5,000 children who died inside the buildings are written on the walls around the piece, which sprawls on the floor of an enormous hall. Ai’s work is best on a grand scale.
Ai’s work is best on a grand scale.
There’s a satisfying narrative arc to much of the artist’s work, especially when so much is shown together. As well as being sprawlingly political, Ai’s exhibition is intensely personal – many of the pieces correspond directly to his own experiences, and the story of his activist’s struggle. ‘He Xie’, for instance, is a tongue-in cheek reference to the demolition of the artist’s studio, pulled down before it was completed on the grounds of – erroneous – planning permission violations. In response to its tearing down, Ai invited 800 guests to lunch on river crab, a traditional symbol of tyranny.
Story telling is central once again in the last room. In it are 6 large iron boxes, each containing a diorama concerning Ai’s 81 days of illegal incarceration in 2011. It is reminiscent of a western tradition – the stations of the cross – and also of the didactic dioramas popular under Mao.
The show is beautifully curated, and a truly important – the first! – major exhibition in the UK of the world’s most famous contemporary artist. We urge you not to miss it; due to such enormous demand, the RA has decided to keep their galleries open around the clock for the show’s final weekend, ending December 13th.