Facing the World

Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei

19 July – 16 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. 

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Ai Weiwei Illumination,2014. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio ©  Ai Weiwei

In the words of T.S. Eliot; we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet”. Beholding oneself is a complex act of intentionality and judgement, whether it is standing before the bathroom mirror in the morning preparing to face the world or standing between a mirror and an easel creating an image to face the world with. In both cases the instrument of self-appraisal is a doubled edged sword of truth and deception. Unravelling intentionality is one of the great pleasures of this show, because ultimately my appreciation of any human image, portrait or self-portrait, hinges on the ability of the artist to transcend the sitter, their own time and themselves. The visualised self must connect in some way to something greater than the “me” of that moment and I have to feel it that it does, otherwise I cannot believe in it as Art. Although that might seem like a critically limiting statement, it’s simply meant as an expansion in terms of seeing the Arts as Humanities.  Humanity is most certainly the foundation of self-portraiture for the artist/maker and the viewer; the perception or identification with universal human traits, characteristics or frailties collectively shared, coupled with the profound need to understand who we are in an existential sense.

Facing the World, Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei is an inspired collaboration between the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and the National Galleries of Scotland features over 150 works by over 100 artists, spanning six centuries. The exhibition juxtaposes artist’s self-portraits from different eras through the media of painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, sculpture and video, arranged in thematic sections; Up Close and Personal, The Artist at Work, Friends and Family, Role Playing and The Body of the Artist. The range of attitudes towards the Self contrast and interweave in fascinating ways, with the lack of chronology creating new connections between artists not usually seen beside each other. It is particularly exciting to see work from different European collections and pieces held by private collectors brought together and there are many works that UK audiences will not have had the opportunity to see before. A diverse range of artists including; Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sarah Lucas,  Marina Abramović, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Ai Weiwei, James Ensor, Paul Klee, Gustav Courbet, Antione Watteau, Allan Ramsay, Lee Miller, John Bellany, Douglas Gordon, Henry Raeburn, Ken Currie, Alison Watt, John Byrne, Ulrike Rosenbach, Helen Chadwick, Imogen Cunningham, Jan Fabre, Henri Fantin Latour, Lovis Corinth, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchener, Max Klinger, Angela Palmer, Cecile Walton, Georg Scholz and Simon Vouet, Palma Vecchio (Jacopo Negretti), Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita and Ludwig Meidner, provide significant opportunities for discovery and rediscovery.

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Rembrandt Self-Portrait, Aged 51 (c.1657, Oil on canvas: 53.00 x 43.00 cm, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, Bridgewater Loan, 1945)

Among the many exhibition highlights is Rembrandt Van Rijn’s Self-Portrait (c.1657, Oil on canvas, 53 x 43cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.) In relation to self-portraiture Rembrandt feels like the visual embodiment Socrates’ credo; “know thyself” and in this respect he remains unequalled in the history of Art. Rembrandt‘s extraordinary realness in facing himself never fails to move me every time I am confronted by it. The trajectory of his 80+ surviving paintings, etchings and drawings in the genre resoundingly depict a man, rather than a Romantic projection of the artist/ genius. This is the source of his timeless appeal, in being one of us; warts and all, transcending his artistic identity to speak to any human being who meets his gaze, regardless of the century they’re standing in. In this Self-Portrait of 165[5?], we see the artist clothed in a modest brown velvet cap. His eyes absorb and contain the entire depth of the background. In the ground of all his works is that defining  search, undertaken by all enduring artists; grappling with their chosen medium and with themselves. Lines of age, experience and the concentration of his furrowed brow are rendered out of darkness, brought into the yellowed light of illumination and decay. He looks within himself and the viewer simultaneously, careworn and intensely human; the layered paintwork of his skin and the fragility of individual hairs catching the light conveying the vulnerability of mortal flesh, magnified with age. He is as we all are, marching towards an inevitable fate. This sense of a real life lived rather than the artifice of a painted surface; skin deep, is one of the most compelling elements of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Self-delusional vanity simply isn’t part of his grammar. It is impossible for me not to feel reverence in the presence of such honesty, especially in the context of contemporary Western culture which denies age, human frailty and death. There is something achingly beautiful in the dignity, awareness and knowing within this self-portrait, something which reaches powerfully across time to acknowledge the eternal human condition. This is Rembrandt wrestling with the unknown, trying to see into the dark, to find out who he is ithrough a lifetime’s work and who we are as a conscious species in the process. What makes his self-portraiture “Great”, in the fullest sense of that word, is not the prolific outpouring of images or the canonised label of “Master”, but the psychological depth of exploration and the artist’s emotional intelligence. This isn’t a singular emoji of expression but a myriad of hopes, knowing and sorrows, everything the artist has experienced to that point brought to bear in a single image of brilliant complexity and poignancy. Rather than returning to his own image for self-gratification, we are faced with Rembrandt’s essential humanity which shines through even his darkest paintings, acknowledging forces greater than himself.

Nearby Sir David Wilkie’s Self-Portrait (About 1804-5, Oil on canvas, 76.5 x 63.5cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.), painted when he was only twenty years old, walks a knife edge between self-doubt and self-assurance. Superbly modelled in an economic, loose handling of paint, his pensive features are half lit and half in shadow. The warmth of his lips, cheeks and locks of tousled red hair are contrasted with the crisp line of his white shirt, vibrant yellow waistcoat and the porte crayon poised in his elegantly refined hand.  There is Romanticism and sophistication in the modelling certainly, but there is also a young man finding his way in the world. It isn’t Wilkie the handsome, the fashionable or the rising star that dominates, but the tension between human aspiration and fallibility- or is it the fact that the face of Rembrandt is so close by? In this self-portrait Wilkie reveals himself as an appealing presence of highly focused mind and action, grappling with his Art and who he is, presenting a strong statement about his artistic intent and creative process. Another Self- Portrait by Louis Janmot (1832, Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.1, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.) extends this idea further, with the eighteen year old artist holding his brush like a surgeon, the white tip like the piercing light in his eyes, unwaveringly focused and ready to attack the canvas. The full frontal positioning of the artist places the viewer in an intriguing position- as if we are both the canvas and the mirror in a shared moment of introspection.  It is a supremely balanced composition, with opposing forces of red and green cutting a swathe of energy and shadow through the image. Janmot’s squared collar belonging to a distant age mirrors the form of his forehead as he protectively cradles his palette. It is an arresting portrait of youthful Romantic energy but with a devout sense of purpose; sculpted in paint like a living neoclassical marble of artistic ideals, about to reach dynamically beyond the foreground and into the viewer’s space.

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Louise Janmot, Self-Portrait, (1832, Oil on canvas. Image © Lyon MBA – Photo Alain Basset)

Reaching directly into the viewer’s space in examination of self is one of the definitive qualities of the Up Close and Personal section of the exhibition, beginning with a slide show of Selfies by Ai Weiwei,and an adjacent series of three selfie photographic prints taken during and in the aftermath of his violent arrest on 12th August 2009 in Chengdu, China:

(Cats 143-5, https://media2.wnyc.org/i/620/465/I/80/1/Ai_Weiwi.jpg, accessed 11 August 2015, http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/WeiWeiHospital-CourtesyFreizeBlog.png, accessed 11 August 2015, http://blog.art21.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/aiww-hospital-01.jpg, accessed 11 August 2015).

In the context of what James Hall describes in his Facing the World catalogue essay Why Self Portraits? as our contemporary “selfie pandemic”, Ai Weiwei’s use of technology and the internet as an agent for awareness, political activism and social change is in stark contrast to the habitual daily use of smartphones and selfies that dominate popular culture. The disposability of these images; buried in memory cards, Facebook posts or in endlessly scrolling tweets, chasing viral popularity and demanding instant attention / response, significantly differs from the intentionality of the artist. In using his mobile phone to capture moments in his own life and share them online, Ai Weiwei documents many lifetimes of intimidation and brutality at the hands of a repressive regime. What he shares with the world is arguably greater than himself, his individual identity, feelings or predicament in any given moment. This means of connection and communication is also a mode of survival. The irony is that in the relative freedom of the West, where the vast majority of people have freedom of access to technology and the internet, these privileges are used primarily to say nothing other than look at me! Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame in the age of the Polaroid has shrunk to mere seconds of rapidly passing interest in the era of the Smartphone. In our celebrity obsessed age it would be easy to confuse Ai Weiwei’s fame with his Art, but it is the depth of exploration in his work and its essentially critical nature which ultimately define it. His declaration that; “I want people to see their own power” doesn’t hinge on our ability to purchase the latest upgrade, but on how we use that technology –either to expand the world or to shrink it.

The first image of the photographic selfie sequence (Cat 143), (Ai Weiwei Illumination,2014. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio ©  Ai Weiwei) posted on Twitter following his 2009 arrest, reimagines everyday technology and the self within the selfie. The artist is seen standing in a lift, capturing his own image, flanked by police and the rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou in an intensely ironic self-reflective triptych of surfaces. Holding his phone aloft to take the shot, dressed in a torn red t-shirt, he is an everyman in the sense of Jesus. The light and illumination of the camera, its connection to global networks and the presence of the image in the gallery space makes this a dangerous moment framed for timely contemplation. The third image of the series (Cat 145); of Ai Weiwei in a hospital bed in Munich, recovering from the cerebral haemorrhage caused by his arrest, is grounded in a similar way. Here the artist utilises the blood bag tube as a looped frame around his eye. Curiously the photograph doesn’t feel self-consciously posed, but immediately confronts the viewer with the connectivity of the human eye; experiencing (directly for the artist and empathically for the viewer) suffering, vulnerability and the question of justice in the viewer’s role as witness. In many ways it’s an anti-selfie in the popular sense, because it’s an act of defiance and survival, rather than vanity or conformity. Getting people to like him or fitting in clearly isn’t the artist’s intention.

In the hands of Ai Weiwei the concept of self-image, social networking and having “followers” represents political will and the universal Human right to freedom of expression; not merely the product of having  a phone in the hand, but possessing the presence of mind to compose the critical shot in the midst of life threatening circumstances. At the dawn of instant messaging Ai Weiwei understood what the rest of the world is still slow to grasp; that understanding the grammar of visual language is more influential and ultimately valuable in human terms than simply reinventing the alphabet. The artist’s selfies constitute more than the classification of self-portraiture might initially suggest to a Western audience, groomed in the Romantic myth of the artist/ genius and collective worship of celebrity. For most of us these images are acts of activism that we can scarcely imagine the necessity of. In his Facing the World catalogue essay; The Global Language of Selfies, Wolfgang Ullrich makes reference to the myth of Narcissus and Alberti’s question in On Painting (1435/6); “What is painting but the act of embracing by means of Art the surface of the pool?” In an increasingly globalised, digital age one might well substitute the words; “instant messaging” in place of “painting” and “digital technology” in the place of “Art”.

The self-referential /autobiographical also provides far reaching illuminations in the work of Symbolist Edvard Munch. In his Self-Portrait (1895, Lithograph, 3rd state, (about 1915) 73.2 x 52.6, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, on loan from the The Brochs of Ciogach Art Collection) the artist himself is a Memento Mori, his head isolated, stark white in an encircling black ground. The puritanical, austere collar contrasts with the fluidly delicate sweep of his hair and the skull-like contours of his cheekbones. Subtler still is his expression- one eyebrow raised, the other downturned, like a fused mask of Greek Comedy and Tragedy; his eyes rendered with the barest suggestion of marks, but endlessly questioning the viewer.  Nearby is his Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle (1930, Lithograph, 42 x 51.5cm, Statliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe), which drew me first due to its relative unfamiliarity, then to the rediscovery of his singular Self Portrait . Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle is an image of loneliness, desolate isolation and the disease of alcoholism. However as in many of the artist’s paintings and prints where stages or cycles of human life, desire, decay and death are invoked, Munch bears the torments of his individual soul together with a baseline of human experience.  The intimately attendant figures in the far distant tunnel of background suggest the ghostly presence of a featureless, bald old man looking on and the silhouetted figures of a man and woman turned away from each other, seemingly growing out of Munch’s shoulder and his unconscious. There is a wider frame of reference than self-consciousness or wallowing in the bottle here, but the universal suggestion of aging, rejection and separation that we all feel at different points in our lives, establishing an intimate emotional connection with the isolated spirit of the artist. Seeing this work, where Munch face is being engulfed by twilight shadow after a long day into darkness, made me re-examine the more familiar Self-Portrait (1895) more closely, not for its immediate starkness but for Munch’s innate sensitivity – a quality often underappreciated in the heightened anxiety of his iconic works.

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Ernst Ludwig KirchnerThe Painter (Self-Portrait), (1920Three-block linocut in grey-blue, yellow and red. © bpk / Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe).

I was elated to find works by German artists such as; Ludwig Meidner, Alexander Kandoldt, Wilhelm Scharrenberger, Karl Hubbach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and a set of exquisitely sharp and insightful woodcut and drypoint etchings by Max Beckmann included in the show. Beckmann’s compression of an entire society into the frame is masterful and the artist depicts himself both as a complicit protagonist and a witness. The power of his mask-like 1922 Self-Portrait (Woodcut, 22.2 x 15.5cm, Statliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe) achieved with the psychologically and physically gouging marks of the print method and the inference of primitive, instinctual drives, is contrasted with the palpable sense of vulnerability and loss in the ironically civilized attire of his 1921 Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat (Drypoint etching 32.2 x 24.2cm, Statliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe).

One of the most delightful inclusions in the show are three etchings on Chine-collé from a series of ten by the Austrian Symbolist Max Klinger : A Glove Sheet 1: Place, Sheet 2: Action and Sheet 7: Fears. (Fantasies on a Found Glove, Dedicated to the Lady who Lost it.1881, 4th edition, 1898, Statliche Kunsthall ). Based on an autobiographical experience of unrequited love and desire, the frozen moment of Action where figures teeter on an unstable brink of awakening emotion, gliding elegantly across the skating rink, reveal elongated shadow selves of the unconscious. The fallen glove is picked up by the artist, who loses his hat in the process in a symbolic precursor to Surrealism. The emotional centre of gravity in this richly expressive work is instantly relatable and as a stream of consciousness projection of “fantasies” by the artist, an intriguingly fascinating variant of the self-portrait. Fears is the most revealing of the three in the fantastic revelry of horror and dreams, sex and death. Marooned and drowning, natural sources of light are eclipsed in the radically upturned, box-like composition, a turgid unconscious world where the slit of the open glove dwarfs the sleeping artist, who is contracted against a wall, whilst reaching into the frame on the far left a pair of ghostly gloved hands ominously reach across the emotionally conductive element of water. The artist is depicted beset by his own fears and desires, in a way that transforms the heightened imagination of the scene into tangibly real feelings.  The strikingly elongated horizontal composition of unconscious sleep reveals painful truths and Freudian dreams, states of human denial and desire. It’s a doorway into Klinger’s mind which the viewer can wander into and the ultimate self-portrait; tantalisingly still as an object of contemplation and self-reflexivity.

One of the most extraordinary, mesmerising and multi-layered works in the show is Ulrike Rosenbach’s Don’t Believe I’m an Amazon (1975, Black and white video, soundtrack, 15mins, PAL, made during a live video action. On loan from the ZKM, Karlsruhe.) In this recording of a live performance, Rosenbach uses two closed circuit cameras; the first focused on a circular enlargement of Stefan Lochner’s Madonna of the Rose Bower (1440-2, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne) and the second set within a square opening at the centre of the painting. What we see on screen are these two views combined, superimposed over each other as the artist takes aim to shoot fifteen arrows into the image / mythology of the Madonna, the Amazon and herself. At points in the performance Rosenbach’s eyes become those of the Madonna, shifting uneasily between iconic reverence, platitude and violence. The artist shooting arrows into her own face and that of the ultimate Mother is an incredibly potent act with the tension of each arrow, strained then released as part of the aural and visceral tension of the work. The concentration as she takes aim, the focus of her art, charged with serenity, rage, faith and intellectually sharpened emotion is stunning. The view of the action and the penetrative result are seen powerfully in what feels like a living/ live feed of resonant imagery. There is a feeling throughout of realness in the performance, rather than staging. In the video Rosenbach beholds the reproduced painting of the Madonna, herself and the viewer. During this trajectory of thought and action she has tears in her eyes, bites her lip; the action is mindful, considered and emotionally fraught. The conflict is in Femininity regarding itself and the intense complexity of this artist’s performance is wonderfully unexpected and incredibly beautiful. A student of the much venerated Joseph Beuys, it would be wonderful to see the full scope of Rosenbach’s work exhibited here in Scotland. One of the first artists in Germany to embrace the possibilities of video and electronic images, “not burdened with art history like painting”, Rosenbach’s choice of media is aligns superbly with her intentionality, examining the traditional roles of women from a Feminist perspective.

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Marina Abramović. Art must be Beautiful, Artist must be Beautiful, (1975, ZKM | Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015.)

It is extremely interesting to see the work of Marina Abramović Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful , (1975, Black and White video, soundtrack, 23 mins 38 seconds, PAL SD Performance 1 hour, Charlottenburg Art Festival, Copenhagen, 1975. On loan from ZKM, Karlsruhe and the archives of Marina Abramović. Courtesy of Marina Abramović and LiMA.), Helen Chadwick’s ; Self-Portrait, ( 1991, Photographic transparency, glass, aluminium frame and electric lights, 50.9 x 44.6 x 11.8cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) and Angela Palmer’s Brain of the Artist (2012, Edition two from an edition of five, engraved on sixteen sheets of glass, 34.7 x 29.2 x13.9cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.) side by side in The Body of the Artist section, each raising important questions about self, artist identity and gender in the reduction of self  to an act of self-mutilation in performance  or to cerebrally isolated body parts. In some ways both Chadwick and Palmer’s visions of self are liberated from the Feminine by being distinctly human and on the other hand this reductive choice, insisting on being seen as a brain, completely disconnected from potential projections onto the face and body, still feels like a troubling necessity. Chadwick’s photograph of a disembodied brain is reads as a universal self-portrait in that it could belong to anyone and Palmer combines the scientific/ diagnostic techniques of MRI scanning with the fragility of glass in displaying the physical and associative workings of her inner self. Unless one is a neurosurgeon and then only in part, the self does not surrender its mysteries and is completely divorced from the face/ identity of the individual. We only read this as Brain of the Artist because the label tells us to believe that it is a precisely mapped rendering of Palmer herself, it’s a beautiful construct in three dimensions. Marina Abramović’s performance assaults the notion of Beauty with “the static video camera serv[ing] as a mirror” and the mantra she recites; “Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful” provides the rhythmic impetus of belief behind tearing open her skin and the hair from her head. The statement feels like a cross between religious doctrine, an advertising slogan and self-help psychology. Self-mutilation is part of the acknowledgement of what Beauty has become and also what it is not in Feminist terms. Although  Abramović’s performance lacks the subtlety of  Rosenbach’s , her uncompromising vision of self in the process of injury and deconstruction also presents the possibility of reimagining the self and it is this aspect of the work that I find most compelling, existing beyond the shock of the moment.

My experience of the original work made the interactive elements of the Facing the World exhibition redundant in terms of feeling the need or the desire to add my own selfie to the mix. However the exhibition extends beyond the gallery space into its dedicated website and into the classroom. Education teams at the National Galleries of Scotland, the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon have been working with young people to explore self-portraiture and the touring exhibition’s interactive elements including FLICK-EU and FLICK-EU Mirror, capturing images of visitors in its various locations and broadcasting them within the exhibition and online. Post Brexit I wonder if collaborations like this, enabled by the European Commission’s Creative Europe funding programme, will continue to be possible. Being able to bring together works from European collections is a vital position which encourages connection, understanding and reflection; seeing ourselves in a new light, doubly so in the wider thematic context of Facing the World. In the words of Max Beckmann;” Since we still do not know what this self really is … we must peer deeper and deeper into its discovery. For the self is the great veiled mystery of the world.

Dedicated website for the Facing the World exhibition: www.i-am-here.eu

Scottish National Portrait Gallery: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-portrait-gallery-23553

Ai Weiwei

Royal Academy of Arts, London. 19 September – 13 December 2015.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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