Ai Weiwei

Royal Academy, London, till 13 December


At last an exhibition of conceptual art where the concepts really matter; and where the art is still worth looking at when you have got the concept. Ai Weiwei is probably the best known Chinese citizen in the world, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Chinese government to suppress him and his work. And his show at the RA does not disappoint.

Like many conceptual artists, he engages with a wide range of non-traditional art materials, and produces works that don’t offer up their meanings easily. One has to read about their background, especially as in many cases the specific origin of the materials is a key to comprehension. But whereas, with many conceptual artists, to understand the idea is to exhaust the work, these exhibits have a poignancy from their rootedness in people’s real-life experiences, which draws us back. At the same time, Ai Weiwei has an obvious love of craftsmanship, so the objects usually have not just a visual power that makes you stop and look, but a beauty which entices you to stay and enjoy them. And above all, he combines his artistic sensibilities with the intellectual strength and humane values of a political dissident to make art that provokes reflection on human values, that confronts basic questions of right and wrong, and inspires intellectual and emotional responses to the realities of human experience.

The artist’s life has been shaped by his experience of Chinese Communism. Born in 1957, he was brought up in the labour camp where his father, the poet Ai Qing, spent 20 years. Ai Weiwei was able to leave China in 1981, and spent a decade in the USA.

In 1993 he returned to China where he has lived and worked in a tense relationship with the authorities, who have at various times stepped in to hinder him. These interventions have become subjects for several works. Room 4 commemorates the $1m studio and gallery that he was commissioned to design for Malu Town in 2008, and which three years later was destroyed by the national authorities. The artist salvaged some of the rubble, which is now neatly arranged into a cubic form. Along with the photographs and other items in the room, the work has the power of a memorial. The artist cannot prevent the authorities acting as they wish, but he can hold them to account by ensuring that events are remembered.

In a similar way the works in the central gallery memorialise the 5000 people killed in an earthquake on 12 May 2008 in Sichuan province. Shoddy construction standards meant that more than 20 schools collapsed, and the majority of victims were children and young people. The authorities tried to hush this up, but Ai and other individuals instigated a citizens’ investigation, yielding information that he uses in his work.

His activities brought various forms of persecution, including 81 days of detention without trial in 2011. The authorities tried to break his spirit through solitary confinement, except he wasn’t entirely solitary: two immaculately dressed army officers were present the whole time, observing him awake and asleep, as well as in the bathroom. This is powerfully memorialised in a set of tableaux, entitled Sacred (2012), a great example of where just telling the truth is enough.

Other rooms take us in less overtly political directions. Everyday objects such as tables and chairs are reworked into bizarre arrangements that render them visually arresting but useless. There is also a marble comfy chair outside in the main courtyard. Reacting against a utilitarian culture, these works seem a defiant call for the viewer to stop and engage their aesthetic faculties, to enjoy some moments of serious playfulness.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) is a set of three large photographs recording the moment when he drops the said 2000-year-old item and it smashes on the floor. His hands and facial expression beautifully capture an air of innocence, as if he cannot possibly be blamed for the destruction. One presumes he has in view the arrogant confidence with which communism - and modernism in general - so wilfully trampled on history, sure of its own rightness and the inevitable march of progress that it embodied. Elsewhere, he exhibits other antique pots that he has painted over, and in Dust to dust (2008) a collection of jars contain the residue from pots that he has ground to a fine powder.

Altogether, a profound and enriching experience that inspires confidence in what art can achieve.

Images courtesy of the Royal Academy:  Ai Weiwei in his studio in Beijing, taken in April 2015.  Photo © Harry Pearce/Pentagram, 2015.
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995; 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm.  Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.  Image courtesy Ai Weiwei  © Ai Weiwei

[This review was first published in Third Way magazine, November 2015]


© 2015