The installations and interventions create new objects from the old, challenging the values of a modern China with the manipulation of materials once used to establish her rich cultural traditions of the past. All of the pieces are concerned with China at some level. At the entrance you are met with Bed (2004), an intoxicatingly rich and brown unfurled wooden ‘mattress’ whose contoured surface linearly maps out China. Further on are the more politically seminal works of Straight (2012) and iconic Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). The exhibition culminates in the post-arrest Weiwei whose works S.A.C.R.E.D (2012), Golden Age (2015) and Bicycle Chandelier (2015) address, through his own experiences, the impact of the state upon the individual.
Political comment is inextricable from Weiwei’s art, as shown by his decision to boycott and heavily condemn the social consequences of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, despite having been the chief artistic consultant for the iconic Bird’s Nest. His arrest and resulting 81-day incarceration in 2011 has underlined the political consequences of his work from before and imbued subsequent work with a new, intensified level of self-sacrifice and determination.
Take Fragments (2005), a third of the way through the exhibition. It’s a seemingly ‘irrational structure,’ as Weiwei describes himself, made up of Qing Dynasty temple fragments pieced together using traditional Chinese joinery methods — no nails, no glue. The artistry of the individual fragments is clear; they come from centuries old temples built all across the country dismantled to make space for urban development. However, what is not clear to the viewer is how the installation looks from above — it resembles the outline of China. The exhibition visitors are able to walk under, around and through the structure — and China — freely, a sardonic comment on how the opposite is true for a Chinese national.
The providence of materials in Ai Weiwei’s work is again vital in Straight (2008-2012). The government response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was to minimize coverage of the 70,000 people who lost their lives, among whom were thousands of schoolchildren crushed by the collapse of their own schools. In an effort to suppress the voices of those accusing the government of negligence, the names of the dead were never published. Ai Weiwei and his team travelled around the Sichuan area collecting names from the bereaved families, and 5,190 names were gathered.
Those names now surround Straight, 90 tonnes of iron rebar recovered from the sites of collapsed schools and arranged into a striking fissure on the floor of the Royal Academy. The list sparked anger from the Chinese government who retaliated by shutting down the artist’s outspoken blog and placing him under constant surveillance. This act of defiance — shaming the government with every recovered piece of rebar and memorializing every student by naming them alongside the installation — marks the beginning of a new era for the artist. Instead of being on the outside commenting on the politics within, Ai Weiwei has moved himself deliberately into the eye of the storm. As a result, the government arrested him, causing international outrage.
S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013) is as close as Ai Weiwei will ever come to fully explaining those 81 days spent locked in a room with two guards at all times. Each letter of the acronym stands for a different activity, which is reproduced in hyper-realistic models to create a diorama of privation and captivity. Six cast-iron boxes lie unobtrusively and elegantly in the hall; from the outside, it is unclear that anything is happening. Only with the two cell door-like apertures on each box are we granted access to Weiwei’s incarceration. (i) S upper, (ii) A ccusers, (iii) C leansing, (iv) R itual, (v) E ntropy, and (vi) D oubt make up the six aspects of his existence in the basic room. Crucially, control of the hatches is entirely external to the boxes: the observer has been granted the same privileges to Ai Weiwei’s intimate suffering as a prison guard would do.
This is a work of reticent helplessness, a depiction of a man denied privacy and dignity, where we, as onlookers, are forced to be complicit with the guards in observing his ritual humiliation. The vivid gold of Golden Age‘s wallpaper, in the loud style of a hip-hop album cover, surrounds the boxes, the artist embodied within the Twitter bird logo whilst surrounded by security cameras, chains and handcuffs. The statement is clear: one of deeply sad constriction and suppression. But there is also an air of arrogance — Ai Weiwei casts himself as the vessel for free speech by embedding himself into the heart of the social media icon.
But the arrogance is justified. Nobody can dispute what he has achieved or how much thought he has provoked. What separates this exhibition from others is that it not only shows a man’s artistic endeavor but also his human endeavor. As you go around the exhibition, almost each exhibit has required Ai Weiwei to employ tens or even hundreds of people. The list of names for Straight made a tangible impact on the lives of those grieving their children. Films dotted throughout the exhibition show the joy with which people greet Ai Weiwei and how people are able to express their feelings of oppression through subscription to his ideals. He seeks to improve the lives of those around him through his art. In short, every piece has a very firm grounding in what it means to be a Chinese citizen today.
This is a man who is fearful for his country, fearful for his child’s safety, fearful for his own safety, but who, despite all that, possesses a profound compassion and understanding for China’s culture and is unafraid to offend people to preserve it. That is why you should see this exhibition: to see what it is like to fear for your life but not afraid to fight for it.
Ai Weiwei runs from 19.9.15 – 13.12.15
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, UK, +44 20 7300 8000
By James Gunn