SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 192 October 2015

The Ai Weiwei way

Royal Academy of Arts, London

To 13 December 2015, £17.60

Reviewed by Manny Thain

Ai Weiwei takes us on a journey incorporating anything from Neolithic pots to 21st century surveillance cameras. Tradition and modernity. Found objects and exquisite craftsmanship. Steel, brick, wood, jade, porcelain and paint come together with anti-authoritarian attitude, questions on reality and value. It is a dynamic combination, a reflection of Chinese society in the throes of tumultuous change. Demolition and construction.

Ai is a world famous artist and renowned dissident. And, although he refuses to be pigeon-holed – "Why do I have to be labelled? I’m not a car seller" (International New York Times, 15 September) – much of this exhibition centres on suppression by the Chinese regime. It also shows his humanity, and a wry sense of humour, too.

‘Straight’ is a 90-plus tonne sculpture made of rebar, the steel used in reinforced concrete. Each length has been straightened by hand and laid out on the floor to create a wave/landscape pattern. It is a remarkable construction. Additional power comes from the fact that each piece was salvaged from the substandard schools which collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing more than 5,000 children. On the walls are the children’s names.

Artists under authoritarian regimes tread a very difficult line. In the early 2000s, for example, Ai worked on the prestigious Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing. His campaigning around the Sichuan earthquake, however, saw him arrested in 2011 and detained for 81 days. His passport was confiscated, only returned just before this exhibition started. His studio in Shanghai was demolished by the authorities. Typically, Ai rescued some of the rubble, turning it into a cubic jigsaw sculpture called ‘Souvenir From Shanghai’.

‘S.A.C.R.E.D’ fills a room with six large rectangular metal containers. Inside each is a scene in a prison cell, a fibreglass Ai accompanied by two prison officers as he eats, is interrogated, sits on the toilet, etc. This gallery space has wallpaper of handcuffs, surveillance cameras and the Twitter symbol. Ai’s father, the poet Ai Qing, had been sent to a labour camp in northwest China in the late 1950s. The family returned to Beijing after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 – Ai was born in 1957.

Mixing the traditional with the modern, there are handcuffs made of jade, a surveillance camera and video recorder carved in marble – from the same source as that in the Forbidden City and Mao’s mausoleum. There is a cube made out a ton of compressed tea.

‘Bed’ is a three-dimensional rendering of the contours of the regions of China, made out of iron wood, a material used to make temples in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). ‘Free Speech Puzzle’ fits porcelain pieces together to make a map of China, each marked ‘free speech’. ‘Fragments’ is an interlacing work of wood, some of which is 1,000 years old. From above, it too forms a map of China. Here, the visitor’s freedom to walk through and around the installation is contrasted to the constraints on people in China.

Another key question posed is that of value. Three photographs show Ai in 1995 holding then dropping a Han dynasty (205BCE-220CE) urn so it smashes on the floor. He has since called it a "silly act", but it was meant as a comment on the destruction of historic buildings and objects during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. It also refers to the breakneck speed of economic development, often with little regard to historical and cultural sites.

On a similar theme, Ai has bought Neolithic pottery and Qing porcelain and painted them – a clearly provocative act. Among other things, it is a comment on the forgeries available in Chinese markets – made using the same techniques as the genuine antiques. So, Ai is asking: What is real? What is fake? Does it matter? Is a painted Neolithic vase more valuable than an original? Who decides?

This is, then, a fascinating exhibition. The old clashes with the new. Freedom vies with repression. Values are challenged – on a thought-provoking journey.

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