Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts

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No doubt you’ve already read a slew of pieces about Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly. It’s the artist’s first ever major exhibition in the UK and comes after a long period of personal and political difficulty for the artist that has seen him put under surveillance, arrested, harassed, imprisoned, beaten and tortured by his own government for political dissidence.

A struggle against the secretive and obstructive Chinese authorities—that of both Weiwei himself and the groups, movements and causes for which he is an advocate—forms a central theme of the work put on display in this exhibition. Overall the collection spans a vast period from the mid-80s when he moved to live in the United States to 1993 where he returned following his father’s death and then right up until the present day.

The political nature of Weiwei’s work is highlighted by the difficulties he has faced in creating his art—something of which the artist is clearly very aware—but there are a number of other concepts feeding into his work of equal importance; craft and tradition; Chinese identity; geography; architecture; information; philosophy and social values.

Each piece on display is predicated upon a particular aspect of Weiwei’s identity; as artist; as craftsman; as contemporary thinker; as dissident; as rebel. Reading about the background of each artwork, there’s a clear roadmap you can then follow when looking at the piece. Space remains for personal reflection, interpretation and reconstruction in the visual and symbolic frames, but the foundation is firm and clear.

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Two pieces in this exhibition exemplified this effect. The first, ‘Straight’, is a huge sculpture made from steel rebars used in construction, piled in a contoured arrangement in the centre of the room. It is explained that each bar was recovered from the rubble of twenty schools in the Sichuan province that collapsed during an earthquake, killing over 5000 children. Government departments have refused to release full information regarding death tolls, construction blueprints and so on, but personal investigations by Weiwei and others revealed irregularities in construction methods that point towards cut-corners and pocketed cash. Each of the mangled rebars was individually hammered back into its straight position before being placed in a perfectly rectangular arrangement, disrupted by the contours that run through its centre. On either side of ‘Straight’ are two canvases spanning the wall’s entire length that list the names of every child killed in the quake; those that the investigation was able to independently confirm.

The second is another large arrangement of tessellating hexagonal marble tiles, each with three tufts of grass rising out of each. Individually hand-carved into something as commonplace as grass from a material that conjures notions of luxury and opulence, the piece encapsulates another interest of Weiwei’s—creating “useless objects”. The meaning of this phrase is made dual by the placement of a marble baby-stroller at the corner of the field, a reference to Weiwei’s discovery that government officials were not only monitoring him, but also his son.

I don’t actually want to go into more detail about the pieces at this exhibition. Firstly, because they’re so massive in scale, concept and messaging that they really have to be viewed in person to be appreciated and understood. Secondly, Weiwei’s reputation as a political and social commentator is one that precedes his as an artist, and it’s a specific feeling that only he can achieve right now; one where you see artistic creations slot into that political dimension. That makes sense in my head.

One thing I did take away from all of it was an imperfect comparison that, admittedly, is like weighing up chalk and cheese, but I’m going to do it anyway because I feel like it. Visiting an exhibition like this so soon after going down to Banksy’s Dismaland, there are a number of parallels and differences that ring true in my head. It was difficult to put my finger on what exactly it was about Dismaland that was so unsatisfying, but Ai Weiwei’s work made it all a lot clearer. As sharp and scathing as a lot of Banksy’s work often is, you often feel like there’s a lack of overall direction. Joe Bish over at Vice pointed out the show’s scatterbrained attacks on the horsemeat scandal, police states, environmentalism, payday loans, Princess Diana etc. and said that you rarely felt like the show ever made its point.

With this Ai Weiwei exhibition, it’s a bit like watching a world class chess player, snooker player or boxer. Each piece identifies its target, arranges itself (and its adversary) into position, takes aim, and boom. From the long pause of reflection that a piece like ‘Straight’ creates to the more sudden impact of others in the collection, it’s difficult to describe the affect of Ai Weiwei’s work as having anything other than a profound impact. Considered alongside each other for a single instant, Dismaland comes across more like a teenager having an aimless tantrum. It’s the Che Guevara patch on the Berny’s jeans of political satire.

So that’s all I’ll say. No doubt you won’t need convincing, but this is definitely an exhibition that’s worth you setting aside an afternoon to go and absorb. Seriously, take your time and pay attention to everything that Ai Weiwei is telling you, and you will leave a better person for it.

The Ai Weiwei exhibition is on display at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House until December 13th, 2015. Tickets are £16 for adults and £11 for students and so on. Safe.

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