The newest showstopper art exhibition, a retrospective of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, has just opened at the Royal Academy of Art in London. It is the first major exhibition of his artwork, although his name became renowned for his beautiful, yet disappointingly hazardous, ceramic sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern in 2010. The exhibition spans two decades of work, and has been said to be the exhibition of the decade by Christopher le Brun, President of the Royal Academy. It follows in the footsteps of other celebrated artists that have taken on the mantel of major solo exhibitions in this historic space such as Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, and Anselm Kieffer. Ai is most certainly a part of this league, having been named the most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview magazine in 2011.
Ai spent a decade living in New York City, during a time when conceptual and performance art were central to the art world, and Andy Warhol was still the frontman of the art scene. Warhol had a huge influence on Ai’s work, particularly with his use of readymades and his development of conceptual art. Just like Warhol, Ai’s persona is integral to his artwork: just last week Ai shocked critics by posting a selfie with Julian Assange, both men raising the finger to their audience. This could be taken as either a political statement of solidarity (both men knowing the endurance of house arrest), or a continuation of his politically immersed art.
Indeed Ai’s work is rife with political connotations that speak against human rights violations on many levels. His marble surveillance camera on a plinth mirrors the dozen that surround his home, and his Neolithic vases dipped in industrial paint hint at China’s disregard for its rich history. In another piece, 9,000 children’s backpacks mourn the deaths of children in schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a disaster which was made worse by China’s lax construction safety protocols. The event’s tragedy is also seen in Straight in the RA exhibition, in which mangled steel rods from the site of the disaster stand in for the victims of the natural disaster.
Ai was born in Beijing, where independent thought and creative freedom is heavily censored by the government. This has quite obviously caused difficulties in Ai’s life: the first 18 years of his life were spent in exile due to the denouncement of his renowned poet father. His dissidence is clearly in his blood. Harassment has continued throughout his life. In 2011, Ai was detained without charge for 81 days while Chinese authorities searched his studio and detained his wife and his assistants. The official line of investigation was regarding Ai’s economic practices, but his detainment occurred at the same time as a crackdown on many other activists called for change, fuelled by the recent Arab Spring revolutions. Following his detainment, his passport was confiscated and only returned in July of this year, allowing his return to Europe’s art world. This type of treatment has only served to strengthen his voice and spread his fame: his 289,000 Twitter followers act as some sort of indicator.
The RA show ends with a powerful diorama that details the mundane but brutal anguish of 81 days in detention. It is proof that all that China throws at him only makes him stronger. Although Beijing is his home it is also his prison, but he wishes to change this and to create safe spaces for freedom of speech through his art. This exhibition will encourage Ai and his goal, while he resides safely out of China’s grasp for now.
Image Credit: Loz Pycock