Ai Weiwei @ the Royal Academy

I like contemporary art at least in part because I find it light and frivolous, an airy alternative to the world which, as Wordsworth pointed out, is too much with us – more than ever in the brave new matrix of 24/7 social media and unstoppable information overload.

Thus Agnes Martin‘s variations on the grid format are open to any number of interpretations – the exhibition of her work at Tate Modern is full of pattern, space and light. Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures at Tate Britain inspire new ways of seeing shapes and being aware of space.

By contrast I felt this blockbuster exhibition of work by world-famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is too heavily overshadowed by the glare of his own fame, his personal trials and ongoing tribulations with the Chinese authorities, too weighed down with ‘real world’ issues, to be enjoyable – unless you buy into the ‘artist as hero’ story.

Ai Weiwei bio and politics

Ai’s biography is long and eventful. He comes from an artistic family which suffered internal exile under Mao. He spent 12 formative years in New York soaking up the mood of modern conceptual and pop art, its interest in ready-mades, ‘found art’, junk etc, before moving back to China to establish his practice.

Through the 1990s and 2000s he was a consistent critic of the Chinese government, but this came to a head with his video and documentary exposure of the cheap, shoddy building materials which led to the collapse of numerous schools when the Sichuan earthquake hit in 2008, causing the deaths of some 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai took to social media and dedicated his prolific blogs and tweets to scathing criticism of the authorities who he – along with many others – blamed for the appalling death toll.

As a result of this and other fierce criticism of the government, in 2010 the studio he’d been building in Shanghai was declared illegal by the authorities and demolished. Ai organised a ‘crab feast’ party – a traditional festival of the riverside city – to ironically celebrate its demolition, but was himself arrested and unable to attend the party.

On 3 April 2011 Ai was arrested and spent three months in close confinement on what the government claimed were tax evasion and economic crimes. He was imprisoned in two small rooms and accompanied at all times by two guards, obviously subjected to intense psychological pressure, stress, harm. He has several medical conditions, including diabetes, which were exacerbated by the imprisonment.

As I write he is in the news again because Lego have refused to supply him the bricks he needs to make another ‘controversial’ installation, prompting a typical ‘crowd-sourcing’ flood of support from fans around the world who are being encouraged to donate him their Lego – Australia gallery collects Lego for Ai Weiwei.

Prison art

Thus, to a disconcerting extent, Ai Weiwei’s art is about himself, and this exhibition reflects that, big time. One huge room is full of skip-sized steel boxes with small windows cut into them. If you peer through the windows you can see a scale model of the cell Ai was imprisoned in, bed, lamp, chairs and the connecting toilet, complete with lifelike mannequins of him and the two guards posted to watch him at all times, even on the toilet.

The walls of this big room are covered with vibrant gold wallpaper bearing a pattern made up of handcuffs and CCTV cameras (bad) and the twitter logo of a chirruping bird symbolising – you understand – the power of social media to spread his message, despite the worst the authorities can do (good). On close examination the round chest of the twitter logo includes an image of Ai’s face curved and burnished, which I found more sly and cheeky than much of his other stuff.

Souvenirs of Shanghai

After the authorities demolished Ai’s workshop in Shanghai, he recovered a lot of the rubble and constructed this work, a room-sized cube of masonry with samples of traditional wood carvings embedded into the brickwork. The irony, you see: the rubble of contemporary life, wreckage of a repressive regime, juxtaposed with exquisite artefacts from a more elegant age.

No fewer than 800 supporters attended the memorial feast to ‘celebrate’ the demolition and this is marked by a pile of realistic life-size model river crabs stacked up in the corner of the same room. Apparently river crabs are a symbol of dictatorial government but also sound like the Chinese word for ‘harmony’. I wondered what would happen if I was ‘subversive’ enough to reach out and touch one. Or nick one.

The way so many of these works directly refer back to these ‘political’ events, for me, drains them of the ambiguity and lightness of fancy which I value in ‘art’. But they are also not all that impressive in themselves. A pile of model crabs. Yes.

Self congratulation

Ai Weiwei’s career, art, his self presentation and the promotional machinery of the western countries where he is an art superstar, allow us to feel good about the part we’re playing in the ‘struggle for free expression in China’ – namely, wandering round a big art exhibition in central London, then doing a spot of shopping.

Many of the works are striking but the whole show is dominated by his story, his biography, the account of his suffering and his heroism standing up to power – then flying out to London to do media interviews and arrange this show. I am not minimising the unpleasantness of his experiences. I am just saying such a weight of art so heavily reliant on his experiences makes me feel uneasy, and exposes – in its western audience – a raft of ironies, mismatches of meaning and hypocrisies.

Irony of technology

I couldn’t help noticing many people taking photos of the art works on their smart phones. Surely everyone knows by now that many of our shiny digital devices are produced in Chinese factories where conditions are little better than slavery, labour camps, the suicide factories. Ie by buying these products we prop up the economic miracle which keeps the repressive Chinese authorities in power. But the exhibition goes nowhere near this.

Nor does it tackle the glaring irony that for Ai, social media, Facebook and twitter are all unalloyed goods whereas many of us in the fabulous free West are deeply sceptical and/or anxious about the extent to which these digital devices have penetrated every interstice of our lives, relaying our every move, thought, word and action back to vast databases which are ploughed by immensely powerful algorithms creating digital profiles which can then be used to sell us products wherever we go and whatever we do and are routinely, as Snowden showed us, harvested by security services and police forces who know more about their national populations than ever before in human history.

Irony of the Royal Academy

The guides, introduction, audio guide, wall labels and Ai’s quotes all emphasise what a rebel he is, always exploring and pushing the barriers, a subversive to his fingertips… It felt odd reading all this rock and roll subversion in the hallowed rooms of the Royal Academy.

Looking up at his chandelier made of strings of crystals hanging in a cunningly constructed lattice of bicycle frames and wheels, your eye also takes in the rich gilding of the RA’s covings and ceiling. If you’re an optimist maybe you see this exhibition in the RA as the art establishment’s ‘acceptance’ of Ai and his politics. If you’re like me, you see it as paradoxical that a man who prides himself on being such a subversive shows his works in such a sterile, formal, carefully patrolled setting, complete with close circuit cameras and security guards in every room. Does no one see the irony? Around every exhibit was a grey tape line which you mustn’t step over. If you stepped over the line a guard was quick to ask you to step back. It felt about as subversive as progressing around a cathedral from one Holy Relic to another.

Irony of the bourgeoisie

An enormous room is dedicated to the Sichuan earthquake and Ai’s response to it. The long walls are covered with an enormous grid or table recording the name of every one of the students who died in the disaster. I am a liberal, I think almost anything can be ‘art’, but the literalism of this made me think this is actually a memorial like, say, the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Because it doesn’t say anything more than it says: a list of the names of the Chinese students who died in the earthquake.

In a corner of the room is a video of a Chinese factory where steel cables for buildings are being made. The video screen was surrounded by a crowd of middle-class, white English people who have never been inside a factory, staring intently at the screen and empathising with the Chinese workers doing this demanding manual labour in a noisy dirty environment – before moving on to the shop and wondering whether to buy an Ai Weiwei poster or mug or apron or coffee table book, made by the same or similar Chinese factory workers.

Irony of the Great Thinker

On sale in the shop is a Penguin paperback of a series of interviews conducted with Ai Weiwei by curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist – Ai Weiwei speaks. The blurb says it is a marvellous insight into the thought of this Great Artist. That use of the word ‘thought’, the Great Man’s Thought, reminded me that this was the kind of adulation and even phraseology which surrounded the insights and writings of another great Chinaman, Mao Zedong – Mao Zedong Thought – who hypnotised the western liberals of an earlier generation. 50 years ago pretty much the same art-going classes would have been forming the same sort of respectful queues to enjoy the insights and thoughts of another Great Chinese subversive, radical and deep thinker. Uneasy.

Irony of Indifference

British Chancellor George Osborne spent last week in China drumming up trade with one of the strongest economies in the world. Maybe he did say a few words about China’s human rights record, about the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the imprisonment of numerous political protestors – and maybe he didn’t. Either way it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. China’s economy is vital to the West and we want a slice of their economic pie, we want closer trade and industrial ties with this superpower. Us citizens can donate all the Lego we like to the latest Ai Appeal, but in the tough-minded negotiations of the powerful we aren’t even dust on their shoes…

George Osborne’s epic kowtow to China

Ai Weiwei’s stance is obviously brave, there’s no doubting he went to prison and may go again, but still bravely refuses to stop exposing government corruption and repression where he sees it, there’s no doubting the authorities (foolishly) block his name and websites from the internet, demolish his workshops, harass his assistants and associates, but:

  • Despite this he was still here in London supervising this blockbuster show. In my boyhood dissident writers disappeared into mental institutes or died in the gulag – this one is jetting round the world saying whatever he wants in interviews with the world’s media, featuring in glitzy magazines, and collecting awards – it’s a genuinely bizarre situation.
  • And anyway, it doesn’t appear to make the slightest bit of difference.

Samples of the art

In the courtyard of the RA are installed a sort of avenue of ‘trees’ made out of lumber and spare wood. I should like this kind of thing, but… I didn’t. I go for regular walks in the countryside: I prefer real trees.

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Inside, one of the RAs’ rooms contains a vast assembly of rusting metal cables. I think the labels said the cables are arranged so that, from above, they form the shape of China as seen on the map – and then unravelled to lay on the floor. So far so, well, familiar from New York minimalists from the 1960s. Of course, when you learn that the cables are salvaged from some of the schools which so disastrously collapsed in the earthquake, then your reaction to them changes. They are no longer ‘art’, they are a memorial. It is impious, it insults the dead, to be anything other than respectful.

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

These three photos of Ai dropping a Han dynasty vase have become pretty widespread. The black and whiteness, the deliberate naivety of the images, the crude vandalism, bespeak experimental art of the 1960s or 70s. Or even Dada from the 1910s… The only novelty is that this is a Chinaman indulging in western art-vandalism…

In fact, a whole room of the show is dedicated to Ai’s ‘engagement’ with the Chinese ceramic tradition: which involves him taking genuine antique vases and painting them modern primary colours (as the Guardian puts it: ‘Ai dips ancient pottery into paint’) or with provocative slogans: one had Coca Cola emblazoned on it. Coca Cola. You see, it’s because Coke is an icon of American consumerism. It’s like it’s a comment on the contemporary world. Wow. In fact they looked very like the kind of thing my kids used to get up to at their half-term art club.

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

The metal cables referred to earlier, seen from above.

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars Lisson Gallery, London Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008 to 2012) Steel reinforcing bars. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Ceramic tiles forming the outline of China, each with a Chinese text about ‘freedom’. China. Freedom. It’s almost like there’s a message here somewhere.

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style,
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

A lovingly-crafted copy of a video camera carved out of marble. State surveillance is bad, apparently – though the technology itself has a clumsy/spooky/slickly designed outline and shape.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Irony of the dissident superstar

Art is now a global business, and deals in brands, assets and products. The international art market this year topped €50 billion. After a certain level of success a modern ‘artist’ establishes workshops and employs significant numbers of ‘assistants’, as well as the retinue of PAs, organisers, accountants, and probably brand managers, social media consultants and so on, some to create the ‘work’ but other, more importantly, to manage the brand in the global marketplace, to plan and curate the never-ending schedule of ‘major’ exhibitions, to co-ordinate sales at the major sales houses.

Eventually Ai reminded me of Damien Hirst, another ‘rebel’ become international superstar whose art has ended up about money. Like Hirst, Ai stumbles on a new concept and then milks it. So one room in the show includes samples of his ‘cube’ art. At some point he ‘discovered’ the attractiveness of the metre-cube and began to think of variations on the theme: a glass cube, a polished steel cube, a granite cube, a rusted metal cube, a cube made of traditional Chinese wooden panels which can be moved in and out and re-arranged like a Rubik’s cube. (Except that you cannot touch it, of course. God forbid the rebel’s artworks got fingerprints on them.)

This reminded me of Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde: initially it was a liberating, original idea but, at some point, after the first 4 or 5 years, became a formula, and then a production line turned out by ‘assistants’ in the Ai or Hirst factories. As with Hirst’s vitrines or spot paintings or butterflies, so with Ai’s painted vases or metre cubes or big wooden sculptures – what once had the shock of the new now has the feel of a showroom for Russian billionaires or Arab princes looking for sound investments to add to their portfolios.


The final irony is that someone who is undoubtedly a dissident in his own country, a threat to the authorities who are in turn a permanent threat to his freedom and practice, can at the same time be such an unparalleled success in the west, an art superstar, a mover and shaker, curator of international exhibitions, winner of countless prizes and awards, sitter on numerous panels of judges.

But for me his art is so heavily overwritten by the newspaper-type stories of his dissident activities, and then overwritten again by his bestselling super-artist status, as to lose the freshness, the space for idle interpretation and the free play of the imagination which, for me, is the main value of ‘art’.

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1 Comment

  1. Perfect review


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