Ai Weiwei is known as much for his activism as his art. The retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts highlights some of his most provocative works, which have infuriated authorities at home while fascinating people across the globe.
A key feature of Ai’s art is the play between China’s traditional crafts and modern-day mass production.
So 27 Qing Dynasty stools stacked together in a gravity-defying circle become a ludicrous object useless to all while a child’s stroller is rendered immovable in marble, a material symbolic of the county’s imperial past.
“I would not separate my art from my so-called activism”
– Ai Weiwei
Throughout the exhibition are references to the Cultural Revolution, which saw Chairman Mao attempt to rid China of any sign of its imperial and traditional past. A triptych of photos of the artist smashing of a Han Dynasty urn stands by a series of Neolithic pots ground to dust.
One of the most emotive works on show is Straight, which pays tribute to the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. More than 5,000 students died when 20 schools collapsed during the quake – deaths blamed on poor construction thanks to corrupt local officials.
Ai bought 200 tonnes of steel reinforcing bars salvaged from destroyed buildings, then had them straightened and returned to their pre-quake state. These bars now lie across the gallery floor in one massive work emphasising the scale of the disaster, surrounded by photos of the damage and the names of those that died.
Meanwhile, S.A.C.R.E.D is inspired by his 81-day jailing by Chinese authorities in 2011, which was widely seen as retaliation for criticising the government. Six models of his cell – all half actual size – invite people to peek in through two small windows to see degrading and claustrophobic scenes of his detention.
But the watcher is also watched. A series of golden Twitter logos, surveillance cameras and handcuffs are emblazoned around the room. Are we all held captive by an obsession with social media?
All in all, the exhibition is fascinating and very well curated, providing enough context to make it appealing to even those more focussed on the politics than the detail of the art itself.
“Without freedom of speech there is no modern world
— just a barbaric one” – Ai Weiwei
It is also the first major art exhibition I have been to where photography is allowed. At first it seemed strange, letting people snap away inside the grand setting of the Royal Academy, but on second thoughts perhaps it isn’t.
What better way to express your commitment to freedom of speech and open democracy than encouraging people to engage, share and discuss your work? Social media has at times been Ai’s captor but it is also his maker, and his skill at using is the very thing that has infuriated his political critics.
The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London runs until December 13.