The world has been waiting agog for the latest show at the Royal Academy of Arts: an impressive summation of works by contemporary artist and political activist Ai Weiwei. Featuring significant works from 1993 onwards, the year that Ai returned to China after more than a decade in New York, the exhibition is profound, powerful and deeply political.
The influence of Marcel Duchamp is clear. The reworking not just of the ready-made but also of the destroyed, appropriated as vessels to enact a critique on China’s contentious attitude to democracy and human rights, is a running theme throughout the exhibition.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the monumental installation Straight (2008-2012), a haunting, undulating composition of steel bars, illicitly salvaged from the debris left in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The title refers to the painstaking process of the straightening – by hand – of the steel, a devotional act that commemorates the deaths of over 5,000 schoolchildren who perished in the disaster.
These steel bars are the same used by the Chinese government to make substandard buildings, such as state schools. Through his art Ai points the finger at the corrupt officials who compromised building standards to line their own pockets, at the expense of the lives of the people.
The Chinese authorities refused to make public the identities of those who were lost to the quake; a sure indication of their culpability. Thanks to Ai, who launched his own investigation into the tragedy, the names of the schoolchildren are known and remembered, etched on to the walls of a gallery space that becomes a chilling cenotaph.
Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Ai’s principles, and is one the artist has had to fight tirelessly for throughout his career. As his fame and influence has escalated, the world has watched as the Chinese authorities censored his work, imprisoned his body, demolished his studio and confiscated his passport.
Ai’s celebrated blog, through which he disseminated a stream of social and political commentary and criticism, was shut down by Chinese authorities in 2009 to the outcry of followers worldwide.
Souvenir from Shanghai (2012) is a memento of one instance of repression, and is made from remnants of Ai’s studio after it was forcibly demolished by the government in 2011. Under house arrest and powerless to prevent this act of tyranny, Ai placed an open invitation on the internet, encouraging supporters to attend a party during which they would feast on river crabs – the Chinese word for which is used in slang to mean ‘censorship’ - to celebrate the building and to mark its imminent ruin. This reconstructed site and the accompanying video of the demolition pays homage to the studio, its creative expression and purpose, and exposes the oppression of the Chinese government. It is yet another act of defiance.
The final gallery holds one of the most dramatic and disturbing works. Six scaled-down boxes offer windows into Ai’s life in imprisonment, allowing the viewer to observe through peep-holes. Models of Ai in various scenes, with two guards constantly looming over him, monitoring every movement as he eats, sleeps and washes, give a vivid glimpse into the level of intrusion, restriction and claustrophobia the artist experienced at the hands of the state.
Crucially, this is the first show of his own work that Ai has been permitted to attend in over 5 years, and the first of its kind in the UK. As much of his art is a reaction to real life events, we must consider whether the exhibition communicates the intended meaning of the art as effectively as in its original environment. I would argue that it does. Within the safe confines of the RA, the message and political significance of the art remains clear and intact. The theme of destruction and rebuilding is evident throughout, which gives an impression of how Ai views China and its authorities.
Ai’s art is imbued with meaning, urging the viewer to think, question and act. A call to arms in the face of tyranny, it sends a clear message to onlookers across the world and will forever be an advocate of the freedom of speech and expression.
The exhibition runs from 19th September – 13th December 2015