This month saw the close of The Royal Academy of Arts’ highly successful Ai Weiwei exhibition. The UK was extra lucky to be able to see this exhibition (that even the Chinese themselves are unable to see) since Ai Weiwei’s UK VISA was almost rejected after his controversial artworks led to his eventual arrest and therefore ‘criminal history’.
Luckily, the UK did retract their rejection now that Ai Weiwei is in the papers with the good news of his exhibition, instead of the bad news he has had in the past; when he went missing for 81 days in 2011, and having his passport taken, though eventually returned.
Walking through the forest of eclectic trees to enter the RA’s exhibition, I had one thought in my mind: what about this artwork could possibly anger a government so much?
The curation of this exhibition, with work spanning around 20 years, investigated this. As you travel from room to room, you see Ai Weiwei’s issues with Chinese traditionalism, censorship, and the government. The final rooms concluding the investigation by showing how Ai Weiwei was persecuted.
It becomes more ominous towards this conclusion, as the exhibition shows the persecution of not only Ai Weiwei and his poet father, but all artists and intellectuals after the punishing anti-rightist movement, (a violent movement reacting to the promoted pluralism of expression and criticism of the government).
One of the final rooms is reminiscent of a museum, that I would have overlooked had I not had an audio guide. It explains that the artefacts, including human bones, came from a collection of imprisoned artists and intellectuals, making it personal to students. The museum-like arrangement portrays Ai Weiwei’s idea that ‘If a nation cannot remember it’s past it won’t have a future’ which is a surprising contradiction to his anti-traditionalist views.
From the first rooms, Ai WeiWei is subverting the traditionalism that is so important to Chinese culture, by rearranging genuine, antique wooden furniture into contemporary, useless tables, with legs on both the walls and floor.
A more obvious example of this anti-traditionalism is the room dedicated to the destruction of priceless Han dynasty vases. He covers some with paint, and smashes others, displaying just the dust left behind. He asks the question, what is the true value of tradition?
So much of the work that Ai WeiWei displays shows the fight that China’s authorities have had to censor him. One room is about the fight in which Ai WeiWei’s new studio was knocked down. He used the rubble from this to build a strong, solid cube; the authorities stopped him from building his studio, but they can’t stop him from creating art.
The genuine furniture and vases, and the actual rubble from his studio are just a few examples of how materials are very important to Ai WeiWei, and how they can add to the poetic messages behind his works which use a huge range of materials from marble to tea.
Not all of Ai Weiwei’s work is so specific to his own struggles with the Chinese government; his work titled, ‘Straight’ (2008-12) used rigid metal rods to portray an aggravated sea, with crashing waves that fought against nothing.
It is only with closer inspection that you see the rods, and his impressive craftsmanship. His task was to collect this many rods from the Sichuan earthquake disaster (2008), from the rubble of so many people’s homes that it could fill a ballroom, and knock each one back into shape before arranging them into the sculpture I interpreted as a sea.
You wonder how he managed this feat, and how it is now in the RA, and only some of these questions are answered by the wonderful audio tour. Evidently, Ai Weiwei had a team of helpers assisting him with this artwork, as he did in a few of the artworks seen in this exhibition, such as the collection of recovered anti-rightist artefacts, from people who were similarly affected.
The audio tour also calls attention to the walls of the space. They are practically wallpapered with names; children that died in the disaster and whom the government had refused to name. Ai Weiwei had to ask the parents for the names compiled in this devastating list. I therefore believe that ‘Straight’ (2008-12) was one of the most moving in the collection, though it depicts a fight with the government that isn’t Ai Weiwei’s specifically.
Also in the tour, Ai Weiwei says he ‘comments on problems’, and that ‘art and language deals with problems’.
The government’s fight against Ai Weiwei is an example of the censorship that is such a problem in China. His artworks are his fulfilment of what he calls his ‘responsibility to let other people know’.
We were lucky to be free to see this exhibition, and be students. Ai Weiwei can remind us of this fact we too easily forget.