This exhibition has been both incredible and timely; it has demonstrated that the Royal Academy very much has its eye on the future and the world today and not just its illustrious past. It will celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2018 and coupled with Michael Craig-Martin’s curation of the Summer Exhibition earlier this year painting some of the walls bright pink, there can be no doubt there is radicalism within the society’s Georgian walls.
Like some of the contrary and incredible works held within, there are further changes with how this show has been put together. It is not just for the development department to fundraise and handle bequeaths; in the Annenberg Courtyard as you approach the ticket office lies a folly of ancient appendaged and re-appropriated Chinese trees in the piece Tree — brought there by the very modern method of crowdfunding; Kickstarter raised £123,000. Where the RA may have once been looking for sponsorship from the home nation of the artist, here the contentious works and parallel criticism of the way China is controlled has distanced any chance of Far Eastern support.
That said, soon before the exhibition was set to open the Communist Party of the Peoples Republic of China saw fit to return Weiwei’s passport, previously confiscated with no explanation, and allowed the artist to once again travel the world for his art; brilliantly allowing him access to complete the curation of this retrospective on site instead of remotely from his studio in Beijing. His work ethic and enthusiasm, and the world’s delayed and vocal support of him, his work and his stance for the freedom of speech has meant that even since this show opened, there have been other significant exhibitions also opening in Helsinki and the current media furore with Lego.
A few days before the timed tickets were to be used, the RA emailed me with a number of articles relating to the artist and the show. The Beginners Guide to Ai Weiwei being just that — a commendable introduction of the artist and his beliefs, his biography and background and his work; much of that with teams of hundreds of classically trained craftsmen, working in marble or wood or porcelain. There is nothing new with email marketing, but for the attendees that took the five minutes to follow a couple of the RA’s links there would have been much to gain in experiencing the show with new-found knowledge and context.
Certainly when walking the eleven galleries of Burlington House you see the influence of his time in America and his wider understanding of Modernism and contemporary practise. Warhol is referenced with the Coca-Cola Vase as well as China’s position as a newly consumerist nation; Taiwan (and to some extent Duchamp) are represented by conjoined stools in Fragments, a work utilising the same craftsmanship as the trees in the courtyard but appearing as an outline of China when viewed from above.
There are smaller, more intimate works — a portrait made with a coat hanger, three cubic metre sculptures nodding both to the Minimalism of the 60s and the cultural ties of his country dating back more than a millennia; one made from compressed tea for example. In the penultimate galleries patterned wallpapers depict handcuffs, the Twitter logo and spiralling arms giving the finger; hallmarks of a very public last few years. There are six heavy solid blocks too; these allow you to peek into the artist’s incarceration, again, for no publicly recognised reason; the half life size dioramas show the artist showering with guards watching him wash, eating with guards standing by and even sleeping in bed with yet more guards standing over him. It’s a disturbing depiction of a very skewed logic the government dictate.
Arguably the greatest criticism of the government is in the most impressive work of the show. Straight is a vast, 90 tonnes sculpture racking up thousands of re-straightened rebar steel bars used in schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. It was suggested by the artist and others that the corruption in government meant that lower quality building materials were used and in turn, once the disaster struck, it lead to more than five thousand school children being killed. As part of the first civil rights activity in Communist China, Ai Weiwei led an investigation into the people affected and the numbers killed in protest to the government’s silence. The piece fills the entire room and the walls are adorned with lists of the dead. The shudder of the quake is represented in the fissure created in the steel rods and the numbers of the dead are echoed in the many thousands of constitute parts.
Like much of the work on show, it works on different levels in a hugely successful fashion. This is art of the head and of the heart; it references art history and cultural heritage at every juncture. It is an art of protest and unwavering belief in freedom of speech. There is a piece called Art Book and in a vitrine two versions of the same art compendium published by Phaidon Press are sat side by side; in the England language version Ai Weiwei sits next to Joseph Alberts alphabetically, in the Chinese version next to the artist of Homage to the Square is a classical artist from antiquity — Ai Weiwei literally written out of Chinese history.
This show gained universal praise when it began and the popularity of the exhibition has lead to unprecedented twenty-four hour opening over the final weekend. There is a huge amount not covered here; it really is a show you should see; not least to bear witness to an artist the West will never forget and one that China would prefer you to.
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/ai-weiwei until 13th December