Klimt / Schiele

Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna
Royal Academy of Arts, London
4 November 2018 – 3 February 2019

Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, 1914
Graphite, gouache on Japan paper, 48 x 32 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit. / To the age its art, to art its freedom. (i)

The day before the Klimt / Schiele preview, I saw a London Underground billboard advertising the exhibition. Three naked figures with a banner collectively preserving modesty declared this work too shocking for public display, even in 2018. Potential offence and outrage are ever present in contemporary life, lived mostly online, with critical discussion and reflection harder to find. Coming face to face with humanity, warts and all, is a given with this exhibition and it would be a shame to expect anything less. Unmasking the nature of provocation and social propriety is unavoidable when following the drawn line of both artists. Although the official PR images don’t come close to representing it, the viewer is consistently arrested, having to psychologically, morally and ethically grapple with where they stand, often in relation to taboo subjects.

As the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the drawing practice of both artists, Klimt / Schiele presents a rare opportunity to see over 100 delicate works on paper from the Albertina Museum, Vienna. Among these are some of the finest examples of life drawing I’ve ever had the privilege to see, sublime, assured and intensely beautiful. Equally I loved this exhibition for the disquieting, uncomfortable questions it raised and for the timeless radicalism of both artists which positively sings, howls and scratches its way off the walls. The drawings are on an intimate scale and arranged thematically to highlight each artist’s creative process, explore relationships between them and engage with the confrontational nature of their work in juxtaposition. Together with this insightful visual survey, the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provide a timely focus for questions about art and censorship in our own time.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Pair of Lovers, 1907-08
Graphite, red pencil, gold paint on Japan paper, 29.6 x 28.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna. The Batliner Collection
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Having been reproduced in golden decorative splendour on posters, t-shirts and greetings cards the world over, Klimt’s radicalism, his essential rejection of the academic art establishment, has almost been gift shopped out of public consciousness. However, this decorative, chocolate box status is effectively stripped away by the pioneering vision of his line, which resonated with Schiele the moment he saw the older artist’s work. Outside the German speaking world, the cultural gravity of the gesamtkunstwerk as a lived idea is often lost or misunderstood. This, together with the 21st century assumption of unrelenting human progress makes it is easy to perceive Klimt as an artist of gilded aesthetics, rather than an innovator or iconoclast. The much-celebrated ‘Golden Age’ of his work, including highly romanticised images like The Kiss, paint an insubstantial picture of the artist. Society portraits that enshrine the sitter in fashionably liberated attire, steeped in colour, symbolic pattern and ancient mythology have become merely decorative to contemporary eyes. What’s gratifying about this exhibition is returning to the bones of Klimt’s art, to drawings which are the basis of his understanding and first response to the world around him. The human figure is central to that vision, and how he renders it paves the way for large scale paintings and the work of artists like Schiele.

Klimt’s state commission of three 4.5 x 3m faculty paintings Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna caused a public scandal. The preparatory drawings for Medicine, including Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, squared for transfer (c. 1900, black chalk and pencil on paper) and Three Studies for the Oil Sketch of Medicine (Black chalk on packing paper, 1897-98) reveal his immediate concern with the drawn line as a potent flow of energy. Sculpted with line and animated shading, three female studies drawn from below, floating above the viewer with their arms outstretched, are an invitation to the entire dance of life. They are a dynamic invocation of where we are led in Klimt’s paintings, an engagement with humanity that encompasses the human cycle of procreation, birth and inevitable decay. It is a departure from the idealised perfection and austerity of 19th Century academic Neo-Classical painting. Looking at these studies there is a complete sense of abandonment and a vital, emergent rhythm that steps across all boundaries of time. In Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, the human body is seen unflatteringly variable in form, aging and vulnerable. This expression of humanity has undeniable impetus in an era of Darwin, Freud and in the context of turn of the century Vienna, once described as ‘the research lab at the end of the world.’ Age old certainties and regimes were crumbling, giving way to modernity and the horrors of mechanised warfare. In Medicine Klimt presents the viewer with over 40 entwined figures bound by instinct to eternal cycles of growth and decay, rather than the elevation and respectability of a noble profession. At the apex of the column, the skeleton/ Death will eventually claim us all, despite the goddess of cleanliness, hygiene and healing, Hygieia at the base of the image, like a caryatid holding up the vertical procession of figures above her. Advances in science and social conventions may define our lives and try to keep us ‘safe’, however from cradle to grave natural drives, creative and destructive, are constantly shaping our trajectory. There’s a feeling of free fall in Klimt’s three female studies for Medicine that to me, sum up the context of Klimt’s time and our own. The earth beneath our feet is no longer stable.

Egon Schiele, Cellist, 1910
Black chalk, watercolour on packing paper, 44.7 x 31.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

There are many astonishing works in the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition that confront the viewer on multiple levels. The sheer skill of draughtsmanship and investment in the human mark is impressive throughout. These aren’t just bodies but souls on display, a quality which will probably cause some discomfort to 21st Century eyes accustomed to the clinical separation of the two. It is stunning in every sense of that word, to be confronted with work that floors you with its unapologetic rawness. As a life drawing student, recognition between sitter and artist is paramount and I was ever conscious, especially in Schiele’s work, of the complex nature of one human being beholding and documenting the living presence of another. Schiele’s Black-Haired Nude Girl (1910, Pencil and watercolour with protein-based binder and white gouache heightening on packing paper) elicited particularly strong responses. I watched people giving this piece a wide berth, mentally and physically distancing themselves from the image of a young girl meeting the gaze of the artist/ viewer. Even the catalogue reproduction triggered shocked, sharp intakes of breath. The girl’s trade is very clearly defined in black stockings, with her lips, nipples and labia accented in red. As an image of child prostitution, it is (and should be) a disturbing sight. On the streets of Vienna circa 1910, where the age of consent was 14, it would not have been uncommon for underage girls to be working due to grinding poverty, partially sanctioned by what we would now consider to be an immoral law. Over 100 years later, in an age defined by mass displacement and global human trafficking, gross economic inequality still rules. Although the depiction of the subject may be hard to look at and/or deeply upsetting, the Schiele’s image deserves closer scrutiny. Not simply because it still has the power to shock, but because the gaze of the human subject demands it.

What struck me most about this drawing wasn’t the red-light triangle labelling of the body, but the embodiment of ‘Death and the Maiden’ in this adolescent female figure. Her body is thin, angular and death grey-pale with blackened fingertips, hands drawn up beside her face, eyes which regard and consider the artist/viewer across the ages. It is a powerful portrait of an unknown girl right on the edge of burgeoning sexuality, arguably the most excruciatingly difficult of all stages of life. I had to confront and question my initial disgust, because whatever circumstances led her into this pose, there is dignity in her gaze, captured by the artist. On a human level, the projection of judgement is problematic and in any case that is not what Schiele’s treatment of the figure conveys. I don’t see this image as one of seduction or desire. Both ideas as projections of a male gaze are negated by the presence of the girl herself; naked, vulnerable and eternally questioning. She stands like a column, anchoring herself in a world of brutality, poverty and decay, with a halo of thin white gouache around her. It’s an image that is impossible to make peace with or to feel comfortable in front of, but that, I would argue, is precisely the point. I am certain that many people would regard this image as obscene and simply turn away in order to distance themselves from it. However, whether it is pornographic i.e. explicitly created for sexual arousal/ gratification by the artist is debateable. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this drawing is that Schiele doesn’t just paint the body and face of this girl, he captures something else, her uniquely perceptive expression. I agree that the idea of maturity in this image is highly contentious, complex and bound to historical perception of Schiele as a male artist. However, that this girl’s gaze is still present, questioning the viewer with mistrust, is significant and I am glad that anyone visiting the exhibition will see and bear witness to the fact that she existed. One doesn’t detect the same empathy in front of a Balthus painting or one of Hans Bellmer’s dolls, where there is absolutely no self-possession afforded to female subjects, wholly objectified by the artist. Schiele’s work may be ambiguous, but many of his images of women and girls grasp the human beings before him in ways that other male artists, historic or contemporary, could not. Schiele’s drawings Embrace (1915, Black crayon on Japan paper) and Group of Three Girls (1911, pencil, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) are good examples.

Egon Schiele
Group of Three Girls, 1911
Graphite, watercolour, white and coloured gouaches on brown packing paper, 44.7 x 30.8 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

It’s fascinating to see Schiele’s naked self-portraits subject to the same line of enquiry as his sitters, with terse dry brush marks and tensely drawn ribs, squatting, arms outstretched and excruciatingly truncated. Collectively they are interrogative rather than celebratory, not just kicking over the white marble pedestal but smashing it. Self-proclaimed artistic genius gives way to everyman/woman, subject to the same raw anxieties about one’s place in the world. The positioning of the figure in Schiele’s compositions has always fascinated me. The lone human being is consistently pitted against the negative space engulfing them, not just as a pictorial element but as an existential crisis. I get the same feeling from Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat (1897-98, Black and red chalk on paper) an innocuously titled drawing that engulfs the lone protagonist in finely spun darkness.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Female Nude (Study for The Three Gorgons; Beethoven Frieze), 1901
Black chalk on brown packing paper, 44.5 x 31.9 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

The figure of the femme fatale, embodied by the sinuous curves of Kilmt’s Beethoven Frieze Gorgon studies (1901, Black chalk on packing paper) is given more considered depth in Schiele’s work. Female Nude (1910, Pencil, black crayon, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is a fine example. The female figure, crowned with deep crimson hair and narrowed eyes meets the gaze of the artist/ client/viewer, back arched, belly, breasts, vulva and the top of her blood-black stockings all unashamedly visible. There’s a feeling of the male artist being sized up by the model’s fixed gaze, rather than being submissive to any kind of ‘master’. It is an intensely powerful portrait, more a measure of a person than a life study. She’s not just draped and arranged, but pointedly takes charge of the composition. Even the focus on the torso doesn’t diminish her mindfully present, penetrating gaze. The same Female Nude, Seen from Behind (1910, Black crayon and watercolour with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is elongated and angular, we can feel the spine and hip bones protruding, surrounded by an aura of living energy. The heightening use of white gouache charges the human figure with a kind of electricity against the plain beige ground of packing paper. This everyday rough texture permeates the entire drawing. Schiele’s models were family, friends, prostitutes and street children, there is nothing glamourous or idealised about them. As an artist he appears to meet his sitters halfway as equals, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

Sexuality in the work of Schiele is very permissive and surprisingly liberated in its antiquity. Unlike Rodin’s erotic drawings, simply powered by male voyeurism, Schiele’s drawings present a more expansive, self-determined view of female sexuality and present a variety of human embraces, between men, between women and between sexes. Curatorially the exhibition takes the idea of Klimt’s Embracing Couple (Study for ‘This kiss for the Entire World’, ‘Beethoven Frieze’) (1901, Blackchalk on packing paper) and expands it in a sequence of drawings in the final room. The erotic focus becomes more fluid than masculine dominance and is critically punctuated by an adjacent drawing, Man and Woman (1917, Pencil and black crayon on Japan paper). This is a work and a kind of fractured, disintegrating mark I hadn’t seen in Schiele’s work before. It struck me as an admission of inequality, starkly violent and ever present in the world. At the base of the drawing a woman lies with her back to us, clothing drawn up while the male figure kneels over her, his face and hands a series of broken, incomplete marks. The drawn detail centres on his hairy, bestial hips, legs and feet and her static head and hair, topped and tailed together, almost as a bookended comment on the male/ female relationship. She is remarkably still, drawn complete by comparison, while he goes about his business, blindly fuelled by instinct. His raised arms ambiguously flail-is he about to embrace her or exert further control by pinning her neck and head? Whilst physical male dominance is present, so is confusion on the part of the male protagonist, communicated by faceless, broken lines. It’s an extremely interesting image of power and pity, because strangely that’s how I felt towards the male figure, despite the position of the woman beneath him. ‘What is the artist’s/ viewer’s position in all of this?’ is the uncomfortable question that must be faced when confronted by this drawing, doubly so in a room of ‘Erotic’ themed work. Provocation, propriety and politics are at the heart of this valuable and very timely encounter.

There were many other aspects of both artist’s practices to be considered and I took three turns around the exhibition, revisiting connections and themes, as well as just pausing to drink in the confident line of human form held in negative space. I found insistence on life in the architectural façade of Schiele’s Old Gabled Houses in Krumau (1917, black crayon on Japan paper) and in the human presence in absence of Organic Movement of Chair and Pitcher, 21 April 1912 (Pencil and watercolour on primed Japan paper), created during the artist’s incarceration. Klimt / Schiele is an exhibition which makes the viewer grapple with where they stand in an age of uncertainty, reminding us that the relative freedoms of our age are exactly that.

In 2017, the inscription above the Vienna Succession building threshold, ‘To every time its art. To art its freedom’, was adopted by the Austrian far right nationalist government as part of their cultural policy, an ideological alignment rejected by the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Succession. Seeing the Klimt / Schiele exhibition reminded me of a statement ‘of relevance and quality’ issued by the association on 20 December 2017 in response to the government’s misappropriation of the Successionist motto:
‘Freedom of the arts is necessarily premised on internationality, pluralism, and dialogue. The notion that art’s purpose is to buttress a national collective identity presses it into a service that runs counter to its thematic diversity. We are persuaded that it is only in the horizon of this freedom that art can attain relevance and quality.

The freedom our motto demands extends far beyond the individual creative articulation: the exchange of ideas in a larger, pluralistic, international context is what endows the individual voices with cultural significance. That is why culture cannot be reduced to art objects or musical compositions. Nor can it be assessed on the quantitative scales of visitor figures, market values, or the circulation of works. An open society is the air that art needs to breathe. When a government does not champion a free society, its promise to respect the freedom of the arts is no more than a rhetorical exercise.’ (ii)

At the heart of the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition is the embrace of artistic freedom, ‘pluralism and dialogue’ which begins with both artist’s drawings, extends through the thematic hang of the show and in the collaboration between the Royal Academy and the Albertina Museum in a pre-Brexit landscape. When I look at free movement of the human body in Klimt and Schiele’s remarkable drawings, I’m inspired by what lives in those lines, the questions they raise and the fact that I can look at them in a relatively ‘free society’, despite any discomfort they may cause me. Although aged 100 years, this is the art of our time and it needs to be examined

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/klimt-schiele 

[1] Inscription above the door of the Vienna Succession exhibition hall, Friedrichstraße 12, 1010 Vienna, Austria.

[2]Art News ‘ Austria’s Far Right Adopts the Motto of Vienna’s Artistic Avante-Garde- and They’re Not All Pleased’ by Hili Perlson, December 22, 2017.  https://news.artnet.com/art-world/vienna-museum-takes-a-stand-as-austrias-new-right-wing-government-quotes-its-motto-1187462

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.

www.royalacademy.org.uk