I had a general familiarity with Ai Weiwei's plight and his art gleaned mostly through headlines in art newsletters, but I was not really clear on what he was about. When I saw that Ai Weiwei was the featured exhibition at London's Royal Academy this fall I felt that I should probably visit the show if only to see what the fuss was about. I had no idea that it would be so moving and profound and that I would exit the RA with a new and sincere respect for the man and his artistic language.
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. The next year his father, the poet Ai Qing, was arrested during the Anti-Rightist Movement and the entire family was exiled to labor camps in remote parts of northwest China. They returned to Beijing in 1976 after the death of Chairman Mao saw a brief relaxation of state restrictions. At the age of 21, Ai began studying at the Beijing Film Academy but with the return of government censorship he soon left China for the United States where he lived and worked until 1993. A decade later he returned to his homeland to see his father who was gravely ill.
It is against this backdrop that the artistic expression of Ai Weiwei was formed and it was in the cauldron of Chinese governmental control and suppression that he gained his voice as a dissident and freedom fighter. Despite innumerable detentions, arrests, beatings and persecutions executed by authorities trying to suppress and diminish his global artistic reach, Ai Weiwei continues to be heard, loud and clear.
This survey, his first in the United Kingdom, focuses on Ai Weiwei's works created after his return to Beijing. Each gallery contains a work or series created in response to his own personal ordeals, oppressive governmental policies regarding transparency and human rights, or to draw attention to the rapidly disappearing artistic heritage of his homeland.
For example, one of the most powerful installations is entitled "Straight", 2008-2012, created in response to the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, in which 90,000 people lost their lives. Over 5,000 of the victims were schoolchildren crushed to death when their schools collapsed due to shoddy construction. Ai Weiwei and a number of others pressed the authorities to release the names of the dead children and to bring to light the corruption that had resulted in sub-standard building materials being used. Not surprisingly, the officials were not forthcoming so Ai took matters into his own hands and clandestinely retrieved 200 tons of twisted rebar, one steel rod for each student, which he carefully straightened by hand into their original pre-earthquake state. These rusted rods are arranged as a sort of topographical map, with the names of the 5,385 children lost posted nearby. It is considered the first civil rights action in China and Ai was punished with the shutdown of his blog, the arrest of his supporters, the first of several surveillance cameras posted outside his studio and a 3 AM beating in his hotel room in Chengdu.
Others speak to the destruction of the Chinese cultural heritage like "Fragments", 2005, where bits and pieces of iron wood, furniture, beams and pillars from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are reassembled in a totally different structure.
Or a not-so-subtle comment on globalization in "Coca Cola Vase", 2014, an antique Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) vase embellished with paint.
One particularly disturbing installation is "S.A.C.R.E.D.", 2011-2013, Ai Weiwei's response to his incarceration in a secret location for 81 days in 2011. Held in a small room with no windows and 24 hour light, with every surface covered in plastic and the continual presence of two silent guards, this was an especially brutal form of psychological and physical abuse. Here, in six dioramas exemplifying Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy and Doubt visitors can peer into large rusted metal boxes and experience the misery of Ai Weiwei's prison cell as a voyeur.
While this was not one of the more uplifting exhibitions I have visited, it was an enlightening look at the work of this international cause celebre and how he gained this status. I leave you with a final installation entitled "Bicycle Chandelier", 2015, a beautiful creation comprised of approximately 40 silver "Forever" brand bicycles (the most popular in China) sheathed in cascading crystals and suspended from the ceiling. Once a universal mode of transportation, the bicycle has seen a decline in use and is now almost a luxury good, much like a chandelier. The crystals speak to the artist's childhood in exile, without light, and these formerly utilitarian objects are transformed into sparkly symbols of illumination and freedom.
"Art is not an end but a beginning" Ai Weiwei, "W Magazine", March 2008
"Amen to that" Georgina Kelman, November 2015