Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts - Review

December 17, 2015

There aren’t many rockstar artists out there that most of the population have heard about. Banksy is definitely one, Damien Hirst another and Tracey Emin a third. But once you remove the British tag, how many do you know? If you’re an art student, you’ll probably known a hell of a lot but personally, there’s only a few international artists on my radar, one of whom is Ai Weiwei. It’s fair to say his UK exhibition was an unabashed success judging by the number of people who attended on the last day – including us – but was it worth the wait and more importantly, the column inches attributed to him?

Ai Weiwei came from a poor family in china before rising to become an icon for thousands of people in Asia, not least because of his continued oppression at the hands of the Chinese government, who seem determined to stop him at every turn. But how powerful can art be, really? If the Chinese never reacted to Weiwei’s many pieces of political-inspired work, would he be as famous as he is now? It’s hard to say.

In the first room of this eleven room exhibit, the public were greeted to wood saved from various archaic, destroyed buildings in China laid out in such a manner that the work apes the country’s rich topographical landscape. This is a theme throughout Ai’s work; attempting to preserve China’s rich heritage through recycling components. Sometimes he does it in a way which is really rather beautiful – untwisting rods of steel that had crumbled during an earthquake for instance – whilst other approaches to reusing materials are far more controversial, not least casually painting over pots from 2000BC in garish paint, dropping a pot from on high for a series of three iconic photographs or grinding them up completely. It’s said that Weiwei’s aim was to call attention to the way the Chinese continually ignore their heritage but joining them in their destruction doesn’t really seem the way forward. Sure, perhaps it’s a way to call attention to it once but to continually do so? Not so much. That being said, should something be seen as unbreakable just because it is old? Perhaps not.

That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway from Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts, the appreciation that he certainly makes you think and that’s not true of every artist out there. Modern art is something that is generally propelled through ideas and the originality of said ideas. This is where Weiwei certainly excels with an entire baby stroller carved from marble that has to be seen to be believed, whilst a solid cube of one ton of tea was nothing short of remarkable, though perhaps he is simply appealing to the British crowd with that particular piece.

There’s no denying that Ai Weiwei keys into public perception incredibly well; he is fascinated by social media and Twitter is even featured in one of his wall pieces. The lengths he went to in order to commemorate thousands of school children killed in a natural disaster is truly moving whilst his almost constant prodding from the Chinese government means that even though you might not always agree with his methods, you can certainly admire the man for not giving up and being brave enough to stand up for what he believes in on an international level.

An art studio he designed and built over two years was demolished by Federal authorities pretty much as soon as it opened, whilst he was held in a small room with two guards who refused to speak to him for 81 days for no apparent reason back in 2011 . That fuels another piece of the exhibition that is truly exceptional; six identical reconstructions of this prison that viewers can only observe through strategically placed holes. Is Ai Weiwei drawing attention to the fact that we become the guards, wordlessly spying on his incarceration, or is there more to it?

The one thing you can ultimately say about Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is that it certainly gives you pause for thought and every piece seems designed to draw a reaction in some form of another. It might not please you but it certainly touches you in some form and that’s to be admired, though one wishes there were more praise for the artist’s contributors and sculptors by the exhibition’s end. It was certainly worth seeing and a wonderful experience to see so many thoughtful and gorgeous pieces but he didn’t build that majestic bicycle chandelier by himself, did he? But hey, that’s a frustration with most of the world’s famous artists and if hope starts with Ai Weiwei and his artwork then that’s certainly something we, and seemingly many others, can get behind. 




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By Henry Fosdike