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David Franchi – Monday, 30th November 2015.
The Ai Weiwei exhibition is incredible, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Despite being the most important Chinese contemporary artist, the Royal Academy of Arts presents now only the first major institutional exhibition of Ai Weiwei in London and in the UK.
The Ai Weiwei exhibition spans from 1993 until present days and showcases new site-specific installations made for the spaces of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Ai Weiwei is born in Beijing, on 28th September 1957. Until today, his life has always been affected by the Chinese regime in a way or another. As a child aged one, Ai and his family were sent into forced exile by the Communist Party. The father of Weiwei, Ai Qing, in fact, was one of the most famous Chinese poets, who was sent to exile during the anti intellectual campaign of 1957. The Ai family remained in exile for twenty years, and the father was sentenced to hard labour cleaning the village toilets. During this period they lived in a hole in the ground covered by brushwood. Ai Weiwei received very poor formal education and when still a child he had to learn how to make furniture, bricks and clothes.
The China’s Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao in 1976. The Ai family was completely rehabilitated, and they moved back to Beijing. In 1978, Ai Weiwei entered Beijing Film Academy and get involved in the artistic group The Stars. He moved to USA in 1981, and arrived in New York in 1982. He lived in Manhattan for 11 years, getting in touch with the art of Duchamp and the real persons of artists Jasper Jones and Andy Warhol and poet Allen Ginsberg who was a father’s friend.
In 1988, Ai Weiwei held his first solo show in New York, ‘Old shoes, Safe Sex’ at Art Waves/Ethan Cohen, but was not
really successful. He stopped working for a while and, due to his father illness, he went back to China in 1993.
There, he wrote three influential books, Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995) and Grey Cover Book (1997), containing his western experiences and inspiration sources. He started to be interested in Chinese cultural heritage, especially art from Neolithic (5,000 – 2,000 BCE) and Qing dynasty (1644 -1911).
When Ai Weiwei returned to China, he firstly started to work with tieli timber. Made of ironwood, this particular furniture is much appreciated. In room 1, at the Royal Academy exhibition, ‘Bed’ is on display. It shows the artist work for the series ‘Maps’ made of three- dimensional representation of China. ‘Bed’ is one of these maps, making the map of the country look as though if it has been rolled out and laid flat like a mattress.
In Imperial China, the Mesua Ferrea wood, known with its common name of ironwood, was preferred to build wood framed constructions. In 1993, Ai Weiwei started to purchase broken tieli timbers from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty.
In the room 1, Ai Weiwei wanted to highlight the destruction of the temples was due to the rapid expansion of major cities. This process replaces new technology of mass production, leaving aside traditional methods of carpentry that employ mortise-and – tenon joints to create works without using nails, screws or glue.
In the room 2, works from the Furniture series are on display. It was the first series by Ai Weiwei when back to China. The artist challenges the initial rationale to turn items into unusable but visually interesting. ‘Table with Two Legs on the Wall’ is the earliest piece, while acrobatic ‘Grapes’ is made of 27 Qing Dynasty stools. ‘Table and Pillar’ is acknowledged by the artist to be the most important work from this series. ‘Kippe’ is made of off cuts of the rescued tieli timbers, used to produce ‘Fragment’, showcased in room 6.
‘Straights’ is one of the most significant works of Ai Weiwei, on display in Room 3 of the Royal Academy exhibition. Produced between 2008 and 2012, it represents the results of the citizens’ investigation Ai Weiwei and others made about the missing school victims of the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12th May 2008. The authorities were denying the information, despite the event destroyed many schools made with the dangerous building technique called ‘tofu-dreg’.
Of the about 90,000 people killed by the Sichuan earthquake, 248 were missed school children. The authorities refused to make public the identities of the dead. Therefore, Ai Weiwei created an online memorial blog, which was shut down by the government. However, the artist secretly bought bent and twisted rebar. He could bring 200 tonnes of this scrap steel in his studio and he straightened by hand to return to their original status. Honouring the memory of those who died, ‘Straight’ silently blames dishonest officials who spoiled building standards for their own profit.
Room 4 presents the story of Ai Weiwei studio house in Caochangdi. In 1999, he built this house that was in the suburban area of Beijing, in an agricultural area. Many artists and galleries followed him, creating an artistic district. Ai Weiwei designed and arranged the construction of the studio, which was completed in October 2010. The authorities ordered to demolish the building using the pretext that no permission was given. On 7 November the artist posted a party open invitation on internet, asking supporters to attend a river crab banquet. The Chinese word for river crab is ‘He Xie’ which also means ‘harmonious’, and it was also very much used in the government rhetoric propaganda, so that finally became internet slang for censorship. Ai Weiwei was arrested by police so to impede to him to participate, but around 800 people made it to the party.
On 11th January 2011, the studio was razed to the ground. However, the artist was able to retrieve some materials with which created ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’, as in 2008 he was invited by the Shanghai municipality to replicate the success of his studio. This work is on display at the Royal Academy exhibition, together with a video of the building and destruction of the studio, scale models, and ‘He Xie’ a pile of porcelain reproduction of river crabs.
A media Ai Weiwei uses for his work is ceramics, on display in room 5, at the Royal Academy exhibition. From 1993, he began to visit regularly markets and antique dealers to purchase and sell historic vessels, from Neolithic (5,000- 2,000 BCE) pottery to Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) porcelain. In 1995 he realised ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’. He took three images of himself destroying an urn, which has an intrinsic value of some thousands of dollars. By rendering his works unusable, he differentiates from his fundamental source of inspiration Duchamp, who gave new life to mass-produced functional objects, so called ‘readymades’. He cited Mao about building a new world is possible only if the previous one is destroyed first.
In the same room 5, there are ‘Coca Cola Vase’ an ongoing series from 1994, a shelf with sand jars, and another installation of painted vases. Here Ai Weiwei investigates the tension between old a new, focusing on the fact that there are a lot of fakes in the market, while he uses originals to produce his works. The matter of forgery is central to his work, because the same abilities and techniques used to make originals are used to create modern versions.
The room number 6, at the Royal Academy exhibition, displays ‘Fragment’. One of the most motivated projects of Ai Weiwei, this work is made of architectural salvage from four temples and items of furniture from Ming and Qing Dynasties. Looking as a randomly assembled pieces work, Fragment seen from above reveals to be a map of China including Taiwan, thus bringing together the artist’s series Map and Furniture. The only negative point is that it is impossible inside the gallery to have a look at it: maybe pictures could help.
The room 7 of the Ai Weiwei exhibition focuses on marble, which is an icon of power and richness, maybe all over the world and in China as well, both for Imperial and Communist periods. The artist got involved in Dashiwo Quarry in Fangshan few years ago, which marble has been used to build the Forbidden City (1406 – 1420) and more recently the Mao Zedong mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.
Ai Weiwei used marble to produce everyday objects, thus connecting material used for opposite purposes, by such Chairman Mao and Imperial China, and transforming household stuff in artworks. The surveillance camera is a copy of the twenty installed around his studio- house to control his movements. The gas mask is a tribute to those thousands of people dying for respiratory illness in Beijing ever year. A group of marble elements similar to a lawn is titled ‘Cao’, the word meaning grass but it is used to swear too on the internet.
The Cube series is on room 8. The polygons are one metre side each and put together the interest in form and volume of Ai Weiwei with his knowledge of Chinese traditional craftsmanship, and a minimalistic approach. The cubic metre is a universal form of measurement, and the different materials assume the container cubic form during the procedure but change it later. Here the artist gives a permanent universally recognised form to the items. The choice of texture and materials give them a characteristic Chinese character.
The room 9 seems to be a collection of disparate objects with not much in common but superb adroitness. There is on display a pair of jade handcuff referring to Ai Weiwei secret detention 2011; numerous individual porcelain pieces, each decorated with Free Speech catchphrase that forms a map of China; a pair of jade sex toys; and jade cosmetic containers. There is a group of porcelain, which reproduce a set of real bones clandestinely recuperated from a Chinese work camp, where many intellectual died because of the Mao regime. Displayed is also the Chinese edition of The Art Book, on which the Ai Weiwei page is replaced with the one of Renaissance sculptor Agostino di Duccio. Interesting is the wallpaper, featuring a raised middle finger arranged in a decorative geometric pattern: it refers to a previous photographic series, where the artist took images of himself raising the middle finger to at famous buildings and monuments such as the White House.
A renowned moment of Ai Weiwei life started on Sunday, 3rd April 2011, when he was arrested at the Beijing airpor
t and illegally detained in a secret location for 81 days. Released on 22nd June, news about his condition was never issued.
The news was picked up by the entire media world. During the detention, the world’s major museums, including the Tate Modern Gallery in London, which was hosting his installation “Sunflower Seeds”, have launched an online petition in its favour, gathering the support of thousands of people.
The notorious imprisonment shocked the world, and the Chinese government received numerous protests from all over. Many demos and protests happened in the Western Countries, but also in many places in China. In an act of solidarity and support from his fellow artists and architects, Ai Weiwei was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Arts in May 2011.
From this experience, Ai Weiwei drew inspiration and in 2013 made ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.’, now on display in room 10 at the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition. It is a six-part work composed of: (i) Supper, (ii) Accusers, (iii) Cleansing, (iv) Ritual, (v) Entropy, (vi) Doubt – the initials of each give the acronymic title.
It is a dioramas work made in fibreglass, representing the Ai Weiwei detention place. There are small statues installed in six iron boxes of 377 x 197 x 148.4 cm each, that have some holes through which the public can peep inside. The room 10 wallpaper ‘Golden Age’ is decorated with the Twitter logo, a pair of handcuffs and surveillance camera all presented in gold.
Ai Weiwei was locked up in a room without windows and with only a small wall fan for ventilation. Initially handcuffed, he was accompanied 24/7 by two guards who were forbidden to communicate with him. He was detained without any official charges, but some unclear and dubious allegations of economic crimes.
His artist studio was searched by almost 50 police officers and they took away laptops, hard drives and materials. The police also detained eight staff members and his wife, Lu Qing and she was also summoned by the Beijing tax bureau. On 9th April, Ai’s accountant, as well as studio partner Liu Zhenggang and driver Zhang Jingsong, disappeared, while his assistant Wen Tao has remained missing since his arrest on 3 April.
When Ai Weiwei was released, his company Fake Design Ltd. was charged of tax evasion and fined for 12 million of RMB (£1.5 millions) to be paid in 15 days. The world gave a great response. An online loan campaign started on 4 November 2011, and from 30,000 contributions almost 9 million RMB was collected within ten days. Local people were throwing over the studio walls paper planes made of folded notes, and donations were made in symbolic amounts such as 8964 (4 June 1989, Tiananmen Massacre) or 512 (12 May 2008, Sichuan earthquake). To thank creditors and acknowledge the contributions as loans, Ai designed and issued loan receipts to all who participated in the campaign.
On 21st June 2012, Ai’s bail was lifted and until 2015 he remained under heavy surveillance and restrictions of movement. His restriction of travel abroad ended in July 2015, when he was given a passport to allow him to participate to the many activities around the world.
‘S.A.C.R.E.D’ reveals the degrading situation Ai Weiwei was exposed in order of stopping his work as activist. He was detained in a claustrophobic place with constant light, with no possibility of human contact, always with two guards very close to him at all times, and watched him constantly, a kind of psychological torture.
The Royal Academy exhibition ends with room 11, where a monumental chandelier is installed. Made of Forever bicycles, it challenges the idea how the bicycle use its structure to grow. Ai Weiwei used to ride a Forever bicycle a Chinese brand born in 1940, synonymous of mass transport.
Finally, in the Annenberg Courtyard is placed an installation of eight works from the Tree series. They are assembly of parts of dead trees, coming from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. By trying to imaging how they looked like, Ai Weiwei put together the pieces holding them together with hidden mortise and tenon joints and large industrial bolts: the trees look natural from a distance and artificial from close up.
Additionally, in partnership to the Royal Academy, a new site specific installation of ‘Forever’ by Ai Weiwei was installed outside 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) on the 4 September as part of Sculpture in the City.
Supported by David Morris and Lisson Gallery, the exhibition has been curated by Tim Marlow, Artistic Director, and Adrian Locke, Senior Curator, at the Royal Academy of Arts, in close collaboration with Ai Weiwei.
The exhibition Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, from 19th September until 13 December 2015.
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