Last Thursday I went to visit Ai Weiwei at The Royal Academy of Arts. I spent two hours looking at the works, and cried like a child. So all round a successful exhibition.
When discussing the exhibition, and discussing Ai Weiwei it's important and at times necessary to remember who he is, and what exactly he has lived through. China has a tumultuous history, the Chinese government rules the country with an iron fist, Ai's own father, Ai Qing, was exiled in 1958, for daring to speak out against the government and their ideology. A fine modern poet, Ai Qing was refused permission to publish his words until 1979, when he was reinstated as part of the Chinese Writers Association.
Since seeing Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in 2010 I have been interested in Ai, his artworks and political dissent in China. (Read: Hanging Man, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei - Barnaby Martin and Ai Weiwei Speaks - Hans Ulrich Obrist). The society crisis in China is not only fascinating, but deeply troubling. It is in knowing this background that we can really position Ai's artworks. (It's also worth noting that Britain, as a country indirectly supported the Chinese dictatorship until Theresa May stepped in).
The power China has over it's citizens is absolute, and is portrayed as part of the exhibition at The Royal Academy. S.A.C.R.E.D, the six dioramas, recreate some of the moments Ai experienced during his arrest. For all the efforts the Chinese Government put in to portraying the country in a positive light, dissidence and criticism of their policies can still result in detention for those brave enough to speak out. (If you do want to know more about Ai's detention, Hanging Man by Barnaby Martin is a must read).
Ai Weiwei has had his blog, and social media channels shut down by the Government before, and China lags behind the west when it comes to contemporary art. Chinese people are very much conservative, expecting art to be a painting, a sculpture, not the two hundred tons of rebar as part of Straight, the artwork created from the Sichuan earthquake. It was Straight that encouraged me to cry, there is nothing more heartbreaking than a country attempting to cover up exactly how many children died.
The artworks exhibited by Ai Weiwei at The Royal Academy of Arts all have political backgrounds and a profound sadness behind them. The size of the artworks shown take over the rooms of Burlington House and command our attention in a powerfully quiet way. The colours of the works are similar, with the whole show having a feeling of deep, warm browns and umbers.
The Chinese Government have, and do attempt to dictate the aesthetic of the arts and portrayals of life in China, when Ai's father, Ai Qing, returned from France full of liberal thinking he was arrested for 'disturbing the public security'. Eighty-odd years later, Ai Weiwei was arrested for the same crime. Knowing this history, it's a wonder that maybe Ai Weiwei would always walk this path, that it was his destiny (if we are to believe in such things) to raise awareness of exactly what happens in China, and social injustice.
In July, Ai Weiwei posted on instagram that he had received his passport after four years of not being allowed to travel internationally. Although a positive step forward, it's also one to not be taken at face value. Ai's art, that follows the avant-garde and Duchampian, is certainly not weak, to any stretch of the imagination, and displays an attention to detail and deep-thought of someone who can see a new language.
“We are the fortunate children of the past,” he says, but also “new humans, we are created by the new technology and the new possibilities. And a new language of form, sensitivity, emotions is needed to cope with our self-consciousness and identities.”
Ai Weiwei at The Royal Academy of Arts is a beautiful, haunting exhibition. One that I would see again and one that will leave it's mark on me for a long time to come. It's an exhibition that may well change how I appreciate and what I appreciate in art.
19 September - 13 December 2015
Saturday – Thursday 10am – 6pmFriday 10am – 10pm