Ai Weiwei – Royal Academy of Arts – 19 September to 13 December 2015
Ai Weiwei is one of the most significant, powerful and evocative contemporary artists today. Born in China, he is a contentious activist and has never been shy of criticising state corruption in his art work nor the suppression of human rights perpetrated by his government’s regime. His art, appreciation of Chinese history and culture and his politics go hand in hand together and I would strongly suggest listening to an audio guide to further enrich your understanding of his work.
Born in Beijing in 1957, Weiwei was subjected first hand to intolerance when he was sent with his family to a remote labour camp in northwest China for nearly twenty years. His ensuing sense of outrage and defiance is present in much of Weiwei’s work. The first p work you encounter is called ‘Bed’ and is a dramatic, enormous roll of wood that almost takes up the whole space of the room. In 1993 Weiwei began buying reclaimed hardwood - called tieli - from temples of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) that were being dismantled which he then uses in his work. He has always promoted traditional methods of carpentry and for ‘Bed’ he asked his workers to produce three dimensional maps of China. In effect the country looks like it has been rolled out and laid flat like a wooden mattress. Likewise in his art work, ‘Kippe’, finished in 2006, Weiwei uses the wood and parallel bars from a tractor factory to make an attractive installation that also resonates political intensity. In all his work Weiwei is striving to take useless objects and make something new out of them so there is a fusion of tradition and innovation. There is often an underlying humour in his ability to give old forms another life. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is called Grapes 27 and is a collection of armless chairs, playfully assembled on top of each other and molded together to create a piece of art that almost defies gravity. It is playful and at the same time elegant and yet he has simply redefined a rather boring, piece of furniture : the common chair.
Another explicitly political piece of work is Weiwei’s ‘Straight’. Here he has used the steel bars that were used to reinforce the concrete in buildings that were destroyed by an earthquake in China, in 2008. Altogether there are 200 tonnes of twisted rebar – which took four years to straighten - as well as hundreds of names on the walls surrounding the bars which represent the people – mainly children – that were killed in the accident. We learn that the accident could have been prevented if the buildings had been properly built and so this art work becomes also a testament to life needlessly lost and the outrage and grief of the Chinese population. The scale of much of Weiwei’s art is on a huge level, for instance his famous piece, ‘Grass’ consists of 770 hexagonal blocks of hand chiselled marble which form a’ lawn’ of marble, 6 metres wide and 5 metres long. The marble has been made into a literal sea of 3tuft grass, sprouting from the ground in a beautiful grey and whitewashed colour. We learn it was sourced from the same quarry from which the Forbidden City was constructed. It is a symbol of Weiwei’s outrage at suppression and his courage in the face of oppression. Moreover Weiwei’s indomitable spirit can always be felt as is his belief in the truth that the grass will always grow again.
Weiwei is perhaps best known for his six iron boxes called S.A.C.R.E.D which is a shocking detailed remake of the 81 days he stayed in a Chinese prison for alleged tax evasion in 2011. Six iron boxes that are 5 x 12 feet and nearly 2.5 tons each are placed alongside each other and a slight slit in each of them leads you to a lifelike diorama of a man inside a prison cell. It is a particularly evocative piece of work and pushes your buttons. The very scientific way in which he was treated and monitored in prison and the feeling of being trapped is intense. This was tough psychological warfare. Each aspect of his life is painstakingly detailed for example when he eats his food, goes to bed and even takes a shower. It certainly leaves you with a strong sense of outrage.
In conclusion this exhibition is a must see. Book a ticket and experience the wonder and outrage of Weiwei’s art and vision. By Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor Visitmuseums.com