Royal Academy of Arts, London. 19 September – 13 December 2015.
Ai Weiwei in his studio in Caochangdi, Beijing, April 2015.
My first real contact with Ai Weiwei’s work was his vast expanse of Sunflower Seeds (2010) in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, a work which reverberated in ever expanding ways. The sheer scale of the installation was deftly articulated by the handcrafting of each porcelain seed, challenging the idea of mass production and accepted ways of seeing millions. Every seed was rendered resoundingly human, each one felt like a voice and the potential germ of an idea to change the world. On a global stage, Sunflower Seeds spoke of cultural nourishment, taking an everyday object and multiplying its value in a labour intensive process of recreation. The relationship of the individual to the many, the state and to the self was explored and amplified by each unique seed, combined in an undeniably aspirational mass of potential growth. It made me feel deeply humble and it also made me inwardly smile. There was an intensely powerful sense of human connection that commanded the whole space. Experiencing that field of fertile imagination made you feel part of something greater, whatever experience you brought to it, it was inspirational in being aspirational- a rarity in Contemporary Art . When I heard there was to be a major survey of the artist’s work at the RA this autumn, I made a beeline for it.
I arrived in the Annenberg Courtyard early and was confronted by a massive grove of rearticulated trees, salvaged from the hillsides of Southern China and visibly bolted together. Financed by a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign this man-made mini forest was, in and of itself, a work of many voices. Among the trees sat a marble faux leather armchair, an invitation for contemplation coupled with the contradiction of a “useless” object; cold, clad in raindrops and of little comfort to the sitter/viewer. There was a flurry of noise and movement as a scrum of photographers (who unbeknown to me had also come early for a photo call with the artist) spilled into the courtyard. Suddenly there he was, walking towards us in silent dignity, extremely present but equally unassuming. Each photographer was vying for the perfect shot; “Here Sir!”, “put your arms out”, “to me” “just one more”, “to me”, “to me!” “Here Sir!” The artist calmly addressed each request in turn with a kindly, obliging attitude and a certain degree of world weariness. The heaviness of dead wood towered above him and I saw the same tonality mirrored in the surrounding architecture. I wondered at that moment what he was feeling and longed to ask, on a day when after five years and a hundred shows, he had finally been able to be present at his own exhibition. Freedom is relative when you still have family, friends and colleagues living in in your home country. Potential exile would not be without consequence, nor is the daily fight for freedom of speech demanded by choosing to remain.
Ai Weiwei in the Annenberg Courtyard, Royal Academy of Arts, London. 15/09/15.GC.
The crowd of lenses swarmed closer- too close in fact and another public figure might have pushed them away in annoyance, but the intrusion on personal space was simply met with a beautifully timed diffusion of humour. Ai Weiwei came closer still to face the cameras in their own space; hands transformed into the claws of a tiger, playful and childlike, a smiling, open handed gesture that provided the perfect front page shot. Satisfied and sensing the end of the moment the photographers respectfully retreated. The artist moved inside and then emerged once more for a photographer who got the wrong time for the call; obligingly posing for this lone individual, then disappearing into the building. He was not at the press viewing that followed. “He wants the work to speak” said co-curator Tim Marlow and it most certainly does.
There were many times in this exhibition where I found myself reflecting upon the responsibility of the artist, the attribution of value to objects and the cost in human terms. To me Ai Weiwei is to China what Anselm Kiefer is to Germany- digesting the entire history of his own country, coming to terms with its raw human material and the universal weight of human history in the process. He’s an artist whose Ethics are his Aesthetics. Every destructive, violent or silencing act by the government provides material to be transformed in awareness, creating a new perception of reality and a wealth of possibility. When his Shanghai studio was razed to the ground by the authorities, he transformed the rubble into a visual statement of resilient protest, Souvenir From Shanghai (2012) with an ornately carved traditional bedframe at its core. It’s a work that echoes ancient cultural traditions, revolutions and obliterations, transcending the personal. The power of Ai Weiwei’s work lies in its essentially empowering nature. He makes the audience realise their own power and the strength of ideas whose time has come.
Whilst a lot of contemporary Western Artists and their followers are artfully use the privilege of freedom to say nothing, Ai Weiwei actively uses the internet and the substance of his work to expand our idea of what human expression can be. Being inexhaustibly subversive, eternally optimistic and actively creative is part of his inheritance and integrity as an artist. Conformity and protest are in constant dialogue, amplified via the tools of our technological age. While our increasingly global consumerist culture celebrates the cult of Me; my opinion, my expression, my Twitter outrage, my right to say whatever I want in cyberspace without responsibility or consequence, Ai Weiwei’s work is infinitely more generous to his fellow human beings. Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, he makes the viewer acutely aware of freedoms taken entirely for granted and underutilised or misappropriated in the service of “I”. There is a different concept of the individual to be found in his work, relative to others, always questioning, part of striving towards a more expansive way of perceiving the world.
The aerodynamic free form of Grapes (2010), a bountiful composition of 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), feels very much like a portrait of the artist and of Creativity made concrete. The acrobatic movement of these orbital pieces of furniture defy their humble functionality and gravity, the entire weight of the sculpture balanced on a single stool, supporting all the rest as they take flight. The energy of this work is immediately arresting, the fluid realisation of discarded material reimagined and re-appraised in terms of its social and cultural value. It is a richly figurative work to the power of 1 x 27 ad infinitum, the force magnified by overlapping connections between each piece of furniture as part of a larger movement. These individual elements fused together create a beautiful, dynamic and undeniably hopeful presence. Ai Weiwei’s “useless” furniture harks back to the crafting of beautiful objects as part of Chinese funerary rites, often in prized materials such as jade, marble or now extinct timbers. In much of his work there is an insistence on craftsmanship, continuity of technique and ancient tradition, radically altered to present the original object and the very fabric of its material in a new light.
Ai Weiwei, Table and Pillar (2002) Table and pillar from dismantled temple of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). 460 x 90 x 90 cm. Tate, London. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.
Remembering the tactile is a cultural imperative in his work. Created by hand without nails or glue Table and Pillar (2002), combines a reclaimed architectural element from a dismantled Qing Dynasty temple with a piece of domestic furniture. The hybridised object challenges received images of China as an economic powerhouse of faceless mass production, rendering form with consummate skill and clarity of expression. Table With Three Legs (2011) is another beautiful example, one object exquisitely transformed into another, turned on its side to reveal the inner vessel we sense it always was or could be. It is an object of quality, consciously made.
The conscious act of making also finds expression in Ai Weiwei’s Chandelier (2015) made of crystal and Forever bicycles, materials drawn from the living memories of ordinary people and ironically reflecting the opulence of the Great Hall in Tiananmen Square. Weighing two and a half tonnes and hung beneath the hallowed /domed architectural space of the RA’s Wohl Central Hall, it is light that is all pervasive in this work; “both the object that gives off light, but also the form the light creates by itself, in the illumination that it creates and how illumination alters the surrounding environment.” Activism is ultimately a creative act, for Ai Weiwei; “Everything is Art” and “Everything is politics.”
Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars. 600 x 1200 cm. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei.
One of the most moving works in the exhibition is also one of the most politically charged, borne out of a citizen’s investigation initiated by the artist following the Sichuan Earthquake disaster in 2008. Comprised of 18 tonnes of rebar, pulled from the wreckage, purchased by the artist as salvage and straightened by hand, Straight (2008-12) acknowledges the thousands who died in an act of naming. Seismic waves of rusted metal on the gallery floor are flanked on either side by the names and birthdays of more than 5000 dead schoolchildren. The installation is a lament, a memorial and a document of information suppressed by the authorities. The “straight” truth of exposing the corruption that allowed schools to be erected without proper reinforcement is entwined with a sense of natural forces of change which cannot be halted. The central sculptural work feels like a section of the earth’s crust, a ripple of aftershocks that we are not permitted to abstract in our minds. The presence of documentary photographs and the 15 minute film Straight (2015), revealing the devastation in terms of human grief and loss doesn’t allow the viewer the luxury of abstraction. The “biased effect in the building” signifies an entire country and this work responds very directly to corruption, abuses of power and media silence.
The artist’s own experience of violence, arrest and detention is remembered and psychologically purged in his S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-13) Dioramas; “Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entrophy and Doubt”. (Fibreglass, iron, oxidised metal, wood, polystyrene, sticky tape, each 377 x 198 x 153cm.)Detained in a secret location for 81 days with two guards constantly monitoring him at a distance of 80cms; eating, showering, sleeping, going to the toilet, being interrogated, with the dominant hum of air fans replicated in the boxed confines of each room/ the gallery space, Ai Weiwei’s life becomes Art. The viewer voyeuristically steps up to look down into each reconstruction, or bends awkwardly to peer into each theatrical space, smaller than life size. As you touch the metal to balance on each step, you are conscious of the act of looking, the complicity of it in a room surrounded with golden wallpaper in a decorative pattern of surveillance cameras, handcuffs and the artist’s face reflected in the body of a Twitter logo. Originally exhibited at the Venice Biennale 2013 in Chiesa di Sant’ Antonin, here the attendant architecture heightens the sense of passively looking at scenes of the artist’s incarceration and sharing, in some minute way, an all pervasive feeling of powerlessness. This work aligns with Ai Weiwei’s family history; of his Father, the late poet Ai Qing, persecuted by the Maoist regime, interred in a work camp in north-western China and exiled. It is a narrative echoed many times over in Remains (2015), the porcelain reconstruction of bones from people who did not survive the labour camps. The struggle for freedom is ever present; across generations, in the artist’s own story and in the stories of countless others. Out of these visual narratives an alternative image of China emerges; of the humanity, dignity and resistance of individuals, human remains rendered with care in a precious, fragile material that challenges mass identity of victims and mass mentality of the viewer/audience. The value of human life is central in this work, bound to the artist’s choice of material.
Remains (2015) Porcelain. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.
The question of cultural value and authenticity is potently explored in Ai Weiwei’s use of ceramics, inexorably entwined with China’s history. In many ways the central image of his photographic triptych; Dropping of a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), the moment of suspension where the vase hovers above its own destruction, is replicated throughout the exhibition in complex and deeply unsettling ways. How do we decide what is valuable and what leads us to make such conclusions in life/ Art? In the wake of Mao’s 1966 Cultural Revolution or in recent waves of redevelopment which have destroyed architecture and artefacts in the service of modernisation and economic “progress”, how do we decide what we value, morally, socially and culturally? Ai Weiwei’s work actively embraces these essential questions. The artist’s painted urns raise the pertinent 21st Century question of which object is more valuable; the original artefact or the work of a world renowned contemporary artist/ activist/celebrity? At every turn the audience is brought face to face with their own complicity in making judgements and attributions of value, individually and collectively.
Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases (2006) Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) with industrial paint. Dimensions variable. Representative image, courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
The minimalist language of Ai Weiwei’s cubic metre forms such as Ton of Tea (2008) reduces a culturally loaded material to its quantitative value, literally and metaphorically compressing the physical material and thousands of years of human history within it. The abstract of the cube in Western Art History also comes into play in this room, together with the playfulness, ingenuity and craftsmanship of an ancient curio box, the experimental containment of molten glass and the personal/family history of Cube of Ebony (2009) reminiscent of a box given to Ai Weiwei by his Father. Reassembling his inheritance with wit, knowing and pathos, the artist constantly questions how and why events, objects and people are celebrated or obliterated from history. The display of the English and Chinese versions of Phaidon’s The Art Book (2014) where we see the artist’s own obliteration from the historical record is a deeply personal case in point. Rather like the UK government’s visa restriction on the artist, freedom is a fragile and entirely relative state.
Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010).Marble. 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm.Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio.
Ai Weiwei’s intent to; “Transform your feelings into clear language” can be felt throughout the exhibition and it is one of his great strengths. Although this is often viewed through the lens of a Western concept of the individual, his work and intentions are greater than the preoccupations of our Age might suggest. Moving freely through the installation Fragments (2005) is an uneasy experience, knowing that the assemblage of reclaimed materials; Iron wood (Tieli wood), table, chairs, parts of beams and pillars from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) form a map of China which can only be seen from above. This small kernel of knowledge grows as you follow your own imaginative path through the space, burgeoning awareness of how lack of borders, restrictions and censorship are so entirely taken for granted where the viewer stands, in a city such as London. How do human cultures encourage us to thrive or to wither and how do we decide what we value most? The ideal of grass in Cao (2014) sculpted in white marble, presenting an image of nature eternally renewing itself, aligns with the human element of an empty pushchair and the rude slap of internet slang. This is an exhibition of simplicity, complexity, humour and above all else, Hope. Like the image of a sunflower seed, used as a visual symbol of the artist by his followers to avoid online government censorship; he is one, he is many and so too is the viewer.