Ai Weiwei: The activist meets the establishment at the Royal Academy

By Mark Sheerin | 17 September 2015

Mark Sheerin on Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy: a show of hits, misses, struggles and persecutions

a photo of Ai Weiwei in his studio
Ai Weiwei in his studio in Beijing, taken in April 2015© Photo: Harry Pearce / Pentagram, 2015
The travails of China’s best known artist have resulted in good publicity for the UK’s most august art institution. During the time of his illegal detainment by the Beijing government in 2011, the RA made Ai Weiwei an honorary Royal Academician.

And in the weeks before this important show, there were more headlines when the artist reclaimed his passport and then promptly got into difficulties with a visa. You’d almost think Ai too hot to handle, despite being an almost royal figure in the art world.

Fortunately, most of Ai’s attacks are on the Chinese authorities, rather than those in Whitehall or the Palace of Westminster.

In that respect, his first major UK show is on safe ground. It is a perhaps a missed opportunity; time and again in this show, the artist turns on officialdom with both poetry and real political agency. Where is our Ai here in Britain?, visitors may come to ask. You may say we don’t need one, yet.

We don’t, for example, have earthquakes. In 2008 a major quake in Sichuan destroyed 20 schools. Ai was on hand to point out the unsayable, that low quality building and corrupt town planning cost up to 5,000 young lives.

The worst-hit district was a tangle of inferior steel cables poking from inferior concrete. The artist took 200 tonnes of this culpable ‘rebar’ and repurposed it as monumental readymade Straight (2008-12).

a photo of a group of undulating steel bars by Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12). Steel reinforcing bars© Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
His poetic intervention is to oversee the laborious straightening of all the steel and lay it down in an undulating bed which calls to mind a seismograph complete with fault lines running up and down the vast installation. On either side, at the RA, are a mute list of victim names, which fill the venue’s largest gallery, while a 16-minute film tells the story of both the artwork and the aftermath.

With its dead bodies, architectural wreckage, smog-filled highways and bureaucratic obstructions, it is this film which gives the show the contextual underpinning it needs. There is one more, a little like it, to relate the story of the demolition of Ai’s Shanghai studio. And together these set the tone for a Chinese artist to operate.

The official machinations and sly artistic subversions are many miles away from West London, and without a film to accompany every work, some of the exhibits here float free of their dissident moorings.

To give a weaker example or two of the works here, consider the re-tooled temple columns which have been assembled into a dark, woody pergola beside which stands a pair of conjoined milking stools. We are told that seen from overhead, these represent a map of China and Taiwan.

a triptych of black and white photos showing Ai Weiwei dropping a vase
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)© Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
Later on we come across a stylised marble lawn, the craft of which is every bit as impressive as that sounds. But here, again, we are at first lacking the information, that the Chinese for grass sounds very much like their F-word. For a Western audience, at least, so little of Ai’s work speaks for itself.

The worst case of this occurs in one of his best known works, the photo series in which he drops and smashes a Han Dynasty Urn.

The wall text informs us: “Ai’s impassive face in the photograph can be seen as a reference to the lack of protection given by the authorities to the historic fabric of many of China’s cities.” Just how a facial expression can offer such a specific commentary on this work of art is not clear.

It should be pointed out that, overclaims aside, the gallery has pulled out plenty of stops to interpret all the works here. The multimedia guide is informative without being overwhelming, assuming little prior knowledge without dumbing down.

When Ai himself speaks, he does so in English; a personal touch that will please an audience more familiar with the man as opposed to his oeuvre first hand. And until now, that includes most of us on these shores.

A photo of a series of vases each dipped in paint by artist Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases (2006). Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) with industrial paint, dimensions variable© Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
He may already be a near-mythic figure. But what comes across more than anything in this hit-and-miss show is the reality of his struggle and his persecutions. SACRED (2013) is a six-part installation comprised of half-size replicas of the cell in which Ai was imprisoned in 2011. Each one is encased in dark wood with small viewing windows which allow you to join in with his surveillance.

Uncanny dwarfish but lifelike models inside show the artist eating, showering, sleeping and so on, with two uniformed guards in near constant attendance. The scale brings the claustrophobic effects of confinement to a point of horrifying intensity. What makes it all the more scary is that Ai appears to indicate he would go through the same again if he had to.

Here, we don’t have to. We may have our share of corruption and culpability in high places. But in the UK art world most things get by; for evidence look no further than the RA right now, where the activist meets the establishment and few sparks fly.

a photo of a marble sculpture in the shape of a surveillance camera
Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010). Marble© Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy, London until December 13 2015. Tickets £16-£17.60 (free for children). Use the hashtag #AiWeiwei.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Art from Elsewhere, the current Hayward Touring exhibition, features works on paper, video, sculpture and painting and includes some of the most important contemporary artists working today such as Weiwei, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Until September 27 2015.

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
Spanning forty years and bringing together works by artists such as Ai Weiwei, Cao Fei and Zhang Peili, the current Chinese art from the 1970s to Now exhibition charts the emergence of contemporary art in China. Until September 20 2015.

Royal Academy of Arts, London
Current exhibition white: a project by Edmund de Waal runs from classical Greek statuary to a marble lantern by Weiwei, and from Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Tea Set to porcelain pots by de Waal. Until January 3 2016
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