Sunday, 27 December 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Everything is art. Everything is politics.

An artwork unable to make people feel uncomfortable or to feel different is not one worth creating. This is the difference between the artist and the fool. Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei

at the Royal Academy of Arts.

One of the most powerful and moving exhibitions I have seen for a while: thought-provoking art made by a great artist and extraordinary individual who is courageous, fearless and uncompromising.

Weiwei is one of China's most recognisable and contentious artists, as famous for his outspoken criticism of the government of his native country as for his art. His condemnation of state corruption and suppression of human rights and free speech has seen him beaten by government agents, hospitalised, imprisoned and denied the right to travel. A tireless and effective campaigner, Weiwei is also a subtle and effective conceptual artist whose powerful, elegant, minimalist art unleashes the political power of art.

Ai Weiwei spent 12 years in the United States where studied art in the 1980s and he is highly attuned to Western as well as Chinese art history.  Marcel Duchamp became his hero and inspiration.  The readymade and the found object are his regular mediums.

Tree, 2009-2015

This installation comprises structures made from sections of dead trees collected on the mountains of southern China. Over several months, these disparate parts were pieced together in Weiwe's studio in Beijing to create the eight complete trees seen here. These artificial constructions have been interpreted as a commentary on the way in which geographically and culturally diverse peoples have been brought together to form 'One China' in a state sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Marble Couch, 2011

The marble couch that has been placed within the grove of trees references the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) vogue for fashioning commonplace objects from luxurious materials, resulting in items that served no practical use but which emphasised the wealth of the rulers of Imperial China.

Room 1:

In Imperial China, the hardwood tieli (commonly known as iron wood for its hardness and durability) was favoured for the construction of timber framed buildings and furniture. On his return to China in 1993 Weiwei began purchasing reclaimed tieli timbers from temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that were being dismantled to make way for the rapid development and expansion of the principal cities.


Bed is part of a series that presents China as a three-dimensional map, making the country look as through it has been rolled out and laid flat like a mattress.

Room 2:

The cabinetmakers' skilful and apparently invisible interventions in the works in this room are fundamental to the success of these objects which are intended to be as true as possible to the Ming and Qing Dynasty originals, despite their bizarre reconfigurations. Weiwei subverts the objects' original purpose to render them impractical yet aesthetically pleasing.
Grapes, 2010
Grapes, made with 27 Qing Dynasty stools defies gravity with its acrobatic composition and minimal contact with the ground. Consequently, it becomes a 'useless object'.

Kippe, 2006
Kippe is made from offcuts of the salvaged tieli timbers that were used to produce a larger work, Fragments. The offcuts are precisely stacked like firewood, between a set of parallel bars that Weiwei reclaimed from his Zuoyou studio in Beijing, a former tractor factory that had belonged to the government. 


Table and Pillar, 2002

Weiwei acknowledges Table and Pillar as the most important single work to emerge from this group. Many technical challenges were overcome to create this apparently simple conjunction of an architectural column and a Qing Dynasty table.

Table with Two Legs on the Wall, 1997

Room 3  - the earthquake:

At 2:28 pm on 12 May 2008 a powerful earthquake caused extensive damage and significant loss of life in the Sichuan province of southwestern China. Some twenty schools collapsed, killing more than 5,000 students. Despite considerable and sustained harassment from the police, Weiwei and a number of others established a citizens' investigation with the aim of recording the names of all the victims of the collapsed schools, information that was not forthcoming from the authorities.

Weiwei based a number of works, including several films, on the earthquake and its impact on the families of the victims.
In China, government buildings are notoriously badly built and their materials commonly referred to as 'tofu-dreg' , i.e. porous and flimsy like the remnants from making bean curd. The disproportionately high number of fatalities among schoolchildren was blamed on corrupt local officials who had compromised on building materials for personal gain.

Straight, 2008-12

Following the earthquake Weiwei clandestinely purchased bent and twisted rebar - the steel reinforcing bars used in the construction of concrete structures - that had been earmarked for recycling. He had 200 tonnes of this scrap metal transported to his studio in Beijing, where it was painstakingly straightened by hand and returned to its original pre-construction and pre-earthquake state.  Straight can be seen both as a memorial and a reminder of the substandard and hasty construction methods used for building state schools.

This is doubly impressive, not just as an abstract work of art, but it's political dimension takes it to another level altogether.

Weiwei pursued his own citizens investigation to record and commemorate the deaths of the children who died in the earthquake. The name, age and school of each child were documented and these lists span the walls of this exhibition room.

looking closer

Room 4 - The Studio:

In 1999 Weiwei built a studio-house of his own design at Caochangdi, which was then on the outskirts of Beijing. A number of artists and commercial galleries soon followed, turning this former agricultural village into a successful art district. In 2008 the municipal authorities in Shanghai, keen to replicate the success of Caochangdi, invited Weiwei to build a studio in Malu Town, Jiading district, at their cost.

As requested, Weiwei designed and arranged the construction of this new studio, which was completed in October 2010. The federal authorities then countermanded the agreement and ordered the building to be demolished on the pretext that Weiwei had not gained the requisite planning permission. On 7 November Weiwei placed an open invitation on the internet, encouraging supporters to attend a party during which they would feast on river crabs to commemorate both the completion of the new building and its imminent demolition. The Chinese word for river crabs, He Xie is a homonym for 'harmonious', a word much used in government propaganda, but which has lately become internet slang for censorship.

Although Weiwei was placed under house arrest and prevented from being at the party in person, some 800 guests attended. The studio was razed to the ground on 11 January 2011. Despite the authorities' attempts to prevent Weiwei accessing the site during the demolition he managed to procure some of the original building materials to make Souvenir from Shanghai.

Souvenir from Shanghai

The Shanghai Studio in Jiading Malu, 2010-11

Shanghai Studio model, 2011
He Xie, 2011 (porcelain, 3,000 pieces)
Note the lone crab on the skirting board and the second one climbing free of the rest - a political statement, if there ever was one.
looking closer


Room 5 - Ceramics:
Since his return to China in 1993 Weiwei has systematically engaged with ceramics. He purchases historic vessels, ranging from Neolithic pottery to Qing Dynasty porcelain, in markets and from antique dealers. These are grouped and classified by period and style before his interventions. He is very conscious that markets are full of fakes being sold as originals, and that only experts can distinguish between them. The creation of forgeries interests him since the same skills and traditions used to create the originals are used to create modern versions. The question of authenticity is, therefore, central to this body of work. By extension, he is also interested in value: is a Neolithic vase dipped in paint or ground to dust more valuable as a contemporary artwork than it was as an original? In China, which is so marked by rapid change and development, Weiwei exposes the tension between old and new.

Coloured Vases, 2015 , 12 Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and 4 Neolithic (5000-3000 BC) vases with industrial paint

looking closer

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

In this set of three photographs, a neo-Dadaist gesture,  Weiwei overtly refers to the wilful destruction of China's historic buildings and antique objects that took place in the decade following Chairman Mao's instigation of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. His impassive face in the photographs can also be seen as a reference to the lack of protection given by the authorities to the historic fabric of many of China's cities, sacrificed in pursuit of economic development.


Coca Cola Vase, 2014,  Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) vase with paint

He produced the first Coca Cola Vase in his ongoing series in 1994. The logo of the ubiquitous soft drink is emblazoned across the vase, blurring notions of history and branding.

Dust to Dust, 2008, Thirty glass jars with powder from ground Neolithic pottery 

Room 6 - Fragments:

Fragments, 2005

Fragments was created using architectural salvage from four temples and items of furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Weiwei says of this work that 'everything is misfit and connected wrongly', yet when it is seen from above the timber frame is revealed as a map of China.

We were able to walk under and through the sculpture, symbolically allowing us to cross the country freely, much as tourists do when they visit, in a way that Chinese citizens cannot.

Taiwan is represented by the conjoined stools.

Room 7 - Marble:

In China, as in many countries, marble is symbolic of wealth and power, and the material has historic
associations with both Imperial and Communist China.

Cao, 2014
Cao has many interpretations: for instance, the word means grass, as well as being a widely used substitute for a swear word on the internet.

looking closer

and a closer look at that pram

Video Recorder, 2010

Surveillance Camera, 2010

The surveillance camera is a copy of the twenty placed around his studio-house to monitor his every movement.

Mask, 2013
The gas mask is a stark reminder of the thousands of vulnerable people who suffer serious respiratory illnesses or die every year from the polluted atmosphere of Beijing.
Room 8 - Cubes
A series of cubes with sides of one metre. These can be seen as an expression of Weiwei's minimalism, a feature of his architecture.

Room 9 - Showcases:

Weiwei has produced a group of showcases mimicking those in which desirable objects of high value are typically displayed. Here, however, he has subverted their anticipated contents. Despite the richness of their materials and their levels of craftwork, the works in these showcases refer to human-rights abuses, lack of freedom of speech and state censorship as well as more playful objects such as sex toys and cosmetic containers.

Weiwei designed the wallpaper in this room which features a raised middle finger arranged in a decorative geometric pattern, which references two previous works by Weiwei: Marble Arm, a disembodied arm and extended finger carved in white marble, and Study of Perspective, a series of photographs that he has taken of himself raising his middle finger - an internationally recognised gesture of contempt - at buildings and monuments such as the White House and Tiananmen Square.
(You can see photographs of Study of Perspective, if you scroll down this link )

 looking closer

Cosmetics, 2014

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014

This set of individual porcelain pieces, each decorated with the slogan 'Free Speech', collectively form a map of China. They are based on traditional pendants of various materials that bore a family's name and served as markers of status and good-luck charms for the wearer.


The Art Book, 2014

In 2011, in the Chinese edition of The Art Book Weiwei is replaced by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Agostino di Duccio, in response to state censorship.

Sex Toy, 2014

Sex Toy, 2014

Remains, 2015

A set of bones was recovered clandestinely from a former work camp in northwestern China - a region where many intellectuals were interred and lost their lives during the brutal regime of Chairman Mao. These have been meticulously re-created in porcelain.

Room 10 - S.A.C.R.E.D.:

This is the culminating room, the climax, the point that the whole exhibition has been leading to.

On Sunday 3 April 2011, Weiwei was arrested at Beijing airport as he prepared to travel to Taipei. He was illegally detained at a secret location for 81 days. Initially handcuffed, he was accompanied 24 hours a day by two guards who were forbidden to communicate with him. The only source of ventilation for his windowless room was a small wall fan.

Weiwei memorised every detail of the cell, whose walls and every piece of furniture were wrapped in plastic. On his release on 22 June 2011 he was forbidden to discuss his incarceration and was placed on parole for  twelve months; in addition to this his passport was withheld. Despite this restriction Weiwei re-created six models of his cell, in half actual size, and populated them with figures of himself engaged in different activities under the watchful eyes of his guards. The dioramas of S.A.C.R.E.D. reveal how degrading Weiwei's detention was and leave little doubt that the intense and claustrophobic experience he underwent was designed to break his spirit and discourage him from publicly challenging the Chinese authorities.

Following his release, his company Fake Design Ltd was formally charged with tax evasion. The authorities fined the company nearly £1.5 million and gave 15 days to pay. The public offered their unsolicited support by giving him money towards settling the tax demand. Some threw donations over the wall of his studio compound while others contributed online. Weiwei responded with I.O.U., a work in which he wrote promissory notes to each of these 30,000 donors. These notes were in turn scanned and turned into wallpaper.

The wallpaper work, Golden Age, that is all around this gallery is decorated with the Twitter logo, a pair of handcuffs and a surveillance camera, all presented in gold, referencing Weiwei's interest in social media and the curtailment of his personal freedom by the authorities.

The six iron boxes have each two small apertures similar to those found on a prison cell door: one on the side and one on the top, reached by climbing a small set of steps, through which we can peer into the cell where Weiwei has positioned fibreglass models of himself and the guards. The title of the work stands for the six scenes in his daily routine: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy (Sleep) and Doubt - S.A.C.R.E.D.

On one of the sides of each iron box is a small door with a number - 1135.


As Weiwei eats his dinner, the two guards hover around him, recording every minute and move. Their blank faces yield no sympathy.

As Weiwei sleeps with both of his arms and legs spread out, the guards stand ever-present at the top and bottom of the bed. The entire scene is illuminated in harsh, fluorescent light. Weiwei becomes reminiscent of Christ.

The kitsch socialist-realist style of these dioramas is evocative of both Christian scenes of the Passion and the sort of didactic tableau that was prevalent under Mao. It is the combination of all of these elements and the strong political message that make Weiwei's art so powerful.

In this highly political work, Weiwei forces the viewers to become complicit voyeurs. It could also be said that this is also a gentle reminder that we cannot afford to remain mere viewers of oppression but must take a stance against such violations of human rights.

Room 11 - Chandelier:

Weiwei began working with chandeliers in 2002: 'I became interested in light as an object: both the object that gives off light, but also the form the light creates by itself in the illumination it creates, and how illumination alters the surrounding environment'. His point of reference was the grand chandelier of the vast Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, he even sourced his crystals from the same place, in Zhejiang province.

At around the same time as he made his first chandelier work, he began creating sculptures and installations with bicycles. When collecting kindling as a boy, he used to ride a Forever bicycle, a Chinese brand, first produced in 1940, synonymous with the mass transportation of the urban workforce before cars became widely available. 'My work with them started from the question how can the bicycle use its structure to grow according to its own logic'.

The present work is the first in which he has combined the two ideas, creating a chandelier from bicycles. The white crystals are suspended from the rims of the bicycles' wheels and cascade down in illuminated circles to create this dramatic, site-specific sculptural installation.


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