Ai Weiwei is an artist and political activist. These two aspects of his persona are translated into his works and cannot be separated.
The extensive retrospective at the Royal Academy gives us a unique opportunity to analyze the message of a multi-layered personality and to reflect on and perceive the importance of Weiwei’s work.
For any artist, Art and Life are strictly intertwined but for Wiewei, at some point, mediatic overexposure prevailed and after the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 the media focused only on his work as an activist, overshadowing his artistic production.
“…I think artists are the ones who use their own lives to feel the world, to understand the world, so by doing that maybe at least they add to other people’s understanding. I think people have to live some of this life through art and through doing things, so art practice cannot be separated from life”. (Ai Weiwei in conversation with Tim Marlow in the catalogue)
I intend to analyze Weiwei's work in an effort to and understand his motivations on both sides, the political and the artistic.
When asked if he defines himself as dangerous Ai declares that artists are dangerous, all artists.
In Room 3, the largest room of the RA, one can feel and start to understand the impact and the scale of Ai’s artworks. Confronted by a huge installation, one is literally shocked by the ability of this artist to transform terrible tragedy, scandal, corruption and their consequences into a powerful and emotionally charged work.
Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.
Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry
Starting from a tragic natural event – the Sichuan earthquake that occurred in the Southwestern province of China in May of 2008, erasing some 20 school buildings and killing more than 5000 students – Ai’s civic and political sensibility focused on the human “criminal” behavior that amplified, in terms of human loss, the natural effect.
The censorship exercised by the authorities in order to cover the number of dead children pushed the activist to discover the poor construction standards of the public buildings, mainly schools, and the related corruption.
In the meanwhile, the artist purchased from the rubble of the earthquake 200 tons of rebar, the steel bars used to reinforce concrete (of which 96 tons are here on the RA’s floor), had them transported to his studio in Beijing, and straightened by hand almost to their original shape.
A network of volunteers painstakingly researched door to door and recorded a list of names and birthdates of the students, victims of the tragedy.
The presence in the same huge space of two works, Straight, 2008-12, a fluid, silent landscape, shifting to infinity, peaceful, strongly grounded to Earth, heavy and strong now, while in the previous use it showed weakness and failure, and Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizen’s Investigation, 2008-11, as a War Memorial Wall, configures a mesmerizing installation, turning the room into a place in space and time to pause for thought, to consider and reflect.
Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-12. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.
All Ai Weiwei’s life has been dramatically influenced by the political situation in China and its substantial changes.
Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father was a famous poet well connected with the establishment, who suddenly in 1958 fell into disgrace and was sent with his family into exile far from Beijing and then to a re-education camp in the Northwest of China. Only after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution was the family able to return to Beijing, where Ai started his artistic education. In 1981, he moved to New York, where he lived most of the time until 1993 when he went back to Beijing.
From those days until today, Ai’s relationship with the authorities in China has oscillated like a pendulum between reward and punishment. On the positive side: the artistic collaboration with the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron for the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium in Beijing; permission to build up a studio in Shanghai; and the very recent return of his passport and permission to travel abroad. On the negative side: the sudden demolition of the Shanghai studio even before it opened – symbolized by Souvenir from Shanghai, 2012, bricks and concrete debris from the destroyed artist’s studio, and by He Xie, 2011, 3000 porcelain river crabs alluding to the opening party food; and the 81 days of imprisonment without charge in 2011 in a secrete subterranean location, described in S.A.C.R.E.D., 2012, Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt.
I’ve seen this work before when it was shown at the Venice Biennale 2013 in Chiesa di Sant’Antonin; now, in London at the RA, it is even more moving.
It’s a great installation consisting of 6 iron boxes with models of the artist and two guards watching him very closely all the time, an alarming proximity totally devoid of communication.
The viewer can experience through holes or from a skylight all the aspects of life in this cell. Everything – the cell, the prisoner Ai Weiwei, the guards – every object is to scale, minutely detailed.
The violence of this miniaturized universe hits us and we feel trapped in its claustrophobic silence.
All the walls in the same room are covered in Golden Age, 2014, wallpaper in gold on which images of handcuffs and surveillance cameras are defied by a little bird resembling the Tweet logo and bearing a holographic image of Ai’s features: an explicit reference to his way of using blogs and social media to defy censorship and the limitation of personal freedom in China.
Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera 2010. Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei.
In another room, marble surveillance cameras allude again to a sense of constraint. These are the same cameras the authorities put in numbers outside Ai’s studio but the white of the marble freezes the possibility of control and highlights their uselessness.
In the Eighties, during his stay in the US, Ai absorbed the new culture and acquired a taste for minimalism that he then introjected and elaborated through the Chinese tradition and distilled in the early works, of which the most impressive is Table and Pillar, 2002, items from a dismantled temple of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
As in the other “furniture” works, the combination of the Duchampian ready-made and celebration of Chinese craftsmanship gives body to elegant sculptures, effortlessly standing in the middle of the room or bizarrely transformed in fine, three-legged tables that preserve intact the old patina, after having completely lost their function.
The same attention to and sensibility for materials drove the artist to engage with the most important one in the Chinese artistic tradition: ceramic. Ai repainted in industrial paint historic vases ranging from Neolithic period to ancient dynasties; this process underlines his double intention of challenging the traditional antiquarian aim of preserving every historic object and, at the same time, the excessive enthusiasm for everything new.
Two works in particular – Tree, 2009-10, 2015, a sort of petrified, leafless forest in the Annenberg Courtyard, and Bicycle Chandelier, 2015 in the Wohl Central Hall, the first of which you encounter when entering the exhibition and the second when exiting, are very symbolic references to China as “one nation” and to the People of China. One more indication of the indissoluble link between the artist and his country.
Ai Weiwei, Bicycle Chandelier, 2015. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry. © Ai Weiwei
Tree, an installation of reconstructed trees, branches, roots and trunks, reassembled by skilled artisans in traditional ways to suggest a forest, is there probably to represent and bring together diverse peoples of different cultural and ethnic origins.
Bicycle Chandelier, 2015 is a new work, a site-specific sculptural installation that originates from earlier sculptures with bicycles, the most architectural realization in this show.
Space and Light, shimmering metal frames of the bicycles and sparkles of the innumerable crystals constantly alter our the perception of the environment, matching and at the same time opposing the symbol of the mass transportation vehicle of the recent past with the luxury of today’s China.
“…if we have to examine my art or my politics I think the two are inseparable. Artistically I profoundly relate to philosophy and I cannot avoid all political opinion. No respectable artists, thinkers or poets try to separate them. To me that would be incomprehensible, so I just do my job…’ (ibid.)
Ai Weiwei is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from 19 September — 13 December 2015.
Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London.