Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Grapes - 2010
Grapes – 2010

Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the RA was a great insight into the career of an artist who has been as famous for the political intrigue that he has caused as the art he has created. Weiwei’s art centres often on his Chinese heritage, and on opening up a dialogue with China’s past, as can be seen in “Grapes” above, that uses Qing dynasty stools rearranged in this intricate shape. This is one of many of Weiwei’s ‘useless objects’ that are altered in such a way as to make them more beautiful but remove their function. This kind of transformation is very reminiscent of Duchamp’s works and readymades, of whom Weiwei is a great admirer.

Marcel Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel - 1951
Marcel Duchamp – Bicycle Wheel – 1951

Although the Dada readymades seem to exist for the reason of being interesting, Weiwei is keen to point out the craftsmanship inherent within the pieces created in his studios. Hidden joining techniques that do not require glue or nails are preferred, in keeping with the work’s ancient aesthetics.

Kippe - 2006
Kippe – 2006

Kippe involves a visual pun surrounding its use of Iron wood, from Qing dynasty temples, and iron parallel bars from a gymnasium. Weiwei again connecting with various heritages from Chinese past here, the word “Kippe” itself is a german word meaning the act of mounting the parallel bars.

Hanging Man - 1985
Hanging Man – 1985

Hanging man is the most obvious homage to Duchamp, a clothes hanger bent into the artist’s profile.

Table with Two Legs on the Wall - 1997
Table with Two Legs on the Wall – 1997

There is no accreditation to the workers within the Weiwei factory for the parts they played in constructing such exquisite examples of craftsmanship as “Table with Two Legs on the Wall”, which I feel is rather sad, especially given Weiwei’s political activism and his efforts against a regime that ignores a singular individual. I have no problem in the use of assistants or craftsmen to work on behalf of an artist, but I feel that there is a strong need within such an environment for the people involved to receive credit in order for their names to be brought to the forefront of their industry if they display the skill.

Straight - 2008-12 and Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens' Investigation - 2008-11
Straight – 2008-12 and Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation – 2008-11

Major examples of his activism are these two pieces: “Straight” and “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation”. “Straight” involved over 200 Tons of flimsy steel rods that had been allowed for use in the construction of schools in the Sichuan province due to corrupt officials. These rods were collected from the destroyed sites and then straightened by hand and laid out in this disrupted landscape. “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” was the cumulation of 3 years work by hundreds of volunteers organised by Weiwei to find the number and names of all the children who died as a result of this corruption. During the course of this investigation Weiwei and his volunteers were harassed by a government that did not wish this information to come out, including an incident in which Weiwei’s hotel room was broken into and he was assaulted by a police officer that later resulted in the need for emergency brain surgery to deal with internal haemorrhaging.

Souvenir from Shanghai - 2012 Photo: Kay Nietfeld
Souvenir from Shanghai – 2012
Photo: Kay Nietfeld

Further political intrigue surrounded Weiwei’s studio in Shanghai. Invited by the city to build a studio for the hope of cultural development in the area, upon completion, Weiwei received letters to the effect that the studio had been illegally built and would need to be knocked down. To protest this, a crab dinner was staged with over 800 guests attending despite Weiwei being placed under house arrest. The term ‘River Crab’ – ‘He Xie’ sounds similar to the Chinese word for Harmonisation, a main tenant of Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s ideology, and is used as an internet slang term to reference censorship.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn - 1995
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn – 1995

Works such as “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” play upon themes of value and heritage as well as referencing the cultural cleansing that was a major part of Mao Zedong’s revolution. With the rise of the communist party in China, Zedong asked of his followers that they should destroy any artefacts that were seen as counter-revolutionary or indicative of the old ways of thinking. Beyond these ideas, also expressed is that of Chinese production and the inherency of forgeries on the Chinese antique and art markets. Weiwei bought the urn from an antique market in Beijing where it is known many deal in fakes that only an expert may determine as such. This destroyed piece of pottery then asks of the viewer what is valuable to them? The destruction of a real urn, the urn itself, the act of creating an artwork or the person involved in doing so.

Surveillance Camera - 2010
Surveillance Camera – 2010

Surveillance camera, in marble, eternalises the image of the cameras that were placed around Weiwei’s home and studio in Beijing. Once again, Weiwei uses the Chinese government’s attempt to control him as a way to create art, enlighten people to his cause and send back a message of defiance. Furthermore, Weiwei had balloons placed on all the actual cameras to make it obvious where they had been placed around.

However this work, and a series of painted urns all just give a little smack of pop art, ideas that have been rehashed and are just revisiting those that were explored by Warhol and Oldenburg 30 years prior to Weiwei.

Ton of Tea - 2008
Ton of Tea – 2008

A series of 1m*1m*1m boxes each exploring a different facet of the limits of a material included this 1 ton of tea cube. I thought it was important to include at least one of these cubes, and chose this one as tea is close to my heart and as an object in itself it is interesting.

Handcuffs - 2011
Handcuffs – 2011

These jade handcuffs are perhaps the most intricate piece in the whole exhibition, they appeared to seem like they actually would work as handcuffs that further impresses. Jade has been historically a very important material in Chinese jewellery dictating wealth and power, this power relation is then inverted in its use for handcuffs. Jade not being a particularly strong material and therefore fine for use in jewellery acts to show how the shackles places upon Weiwei are themselves rather weak.

Free Speech Puzzle - 2014
Free Speech Puzzle – 2014

Again, much like the jade handcuffs, this “Free Speech Puzzle” is within itself a rather desirable object with political undertones. Each piece corresponds to a province of China and is labelled with characters expressing the term ‘Free Speech’. I think this dichotomy, that has tracked its way though his work, of an opposition to the political regime played against a traditionally Chinese object of exquisite beauty, is never found more simply or succinctly than in this example.

S.A.C.R.E.D - 2012
S.A.C.R.E.D – 2012

Finally, Weiwei’s work “S.A.C.R.E.D” filled the last room of the exhibition. Depicting the conditions he was kept in during his illegal detention for 81 days, it is one of the most powerful pieces of work I have ever seen. It brings around the truth of an oppressive system that seeks to preserve its twisted version of ‘harmony’ at the expense of the individual and their right to speech and eventually freedom in general. Weiwei was watched day and night by guards, from his sleeping to showering in a small cell, depicted here in half-size, six scenes of which we are able to peek in at through strategically places viewing spots.

S.A.C.R.E.D - 2012
S.A.C.R.E.D – 2012
S.A.C.R.E.D - 2012
S.A.C.R.E.D – 2012

This was a brilliant retrospective of a great deal of important work by one of the most important figures in the world. Although I may disagree with some of the practices he has I think it is undeniable the importance he holds in playing a role in connecting China with the west as well as China with its past.

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