21 November 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

A year ago here I posted about the exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works being held at Blenheim Palace, and anticipated Ai Weiwei, now at the Royal Academy in London. The current show has received considerable publicity, so this post need not be too long. The Ai Weiwei catalogue is excellent, particularly the artist ‘in conversation’ with Tim Marlow, the RA’s Artistic Director. It is a welcome addition to the surprisingly small number of books about Ai Weiwei, the first monograph on the artist appearing as recently as 2009. An Introduction for Teachers and Students can be downloaded from the RA website. Here are some of the exhibits which made an impression on me.

Only when looked at closely does the detail of works like Bed (2004, below), assembled without nails or glue in Iron wood (tieli wood) from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), become apparent:

The RA show has nothing from before Ai Weiwei’s return to China in 1993, so the oldest pieces are from that time, the Furniture series continuing since, for example Grapes (2010, below left) made with 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty and similar to a work at Blenheim, and Table with Three Legs (2011, below right):

The ample size of the RA galleries means that there is space for works like Straight (2008-12, below). In 2008 an earthquake province exposed shoddy construction in China.  Government buildings are notoriously badly built and their materials are commonly referred to as “tofu-dreg”, i.e. porous and flimsy like the remnants from making bean curd.

Straight is formed from steel reinforcing bars which had to be straightened by hand after being bent and twisted when school buildings in Sichuan collapsed. The names of the victims are in a nearby large print, Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation (2008–2011, below).

A gallery is given over to the problems Ai Weiwei had with a studio constructed with the agreement of the Shanghai authorities in 2010. The central government immediately ordered it to be demolished. Concrete and brick rubble from the destroyed studio, set in a wooden frame, form Souvenir from Shanghai (2012, below top). On 7 November 2010 Ai 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. 3,000 pieces of porcelain make up He Xie (2011, below lower).

Ai Weiwei alters vases (ostensibly Neolithic or antique, but fakes are common in China) by painting, or more drastic means, to make points about authenticity and the tension between old and new in a rapidly changing society. Examples are Coloured Vases (2015, below top), made from twelve Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and four Neolithic (5000–3000 BC) vases with industrial paint, and thirty glass jars with powder from ground Neolithic pottery forming Dust to Dust (2008, below lower):

Gallery 5 at the RA is given over to one very large work, Fragments (2005, below left), a timber frame created from recovered materials: iron wood, table, chairs, parts of beams and pillars from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples. Fragments brings together the Furniture (see above) and Map series. Another example of the latter, Map of China (2009), was at Blenheim. The notice in the gallery states that:
The work at first appears to be a random construction made from unrelated objects. … Yet when it is seen from above – a physical impossibility within the gallery – the timber frame is revealed as a map of China including Taiwan (represented by the conjoined stools).
This seems rather a limp excuse for not putting a wide-angle camera above and a screen in the gallery to reveal the geography, which doesn’t appear in the exhibition guide either, although there is an image of sorts (below right) in the leaflet handed to visitors.

The artist’s interest in marble led him to purchase an interest in a marble quarry in Fangshan. Ai’s craftsmen have produced a wide variety of objects like a surveillance camera (see the Blenheim post), video recorder and gas mask as well as a much larger group of the Cao (2014) pieces than at Blenheim with Marble Stroller (2014, below) set among them:

The next two galleries were the least interesting with one meter cubes, albeit finely crafted, and subversive objects like sex toys and handcuffs made in jade. The Finger wallpaper (2014, below top) was, of course, wholly appropriate for this display, as was the Golden Age wallpaper (2014, below lower) for Gallery 10. 

S.A.C.R.E.D. (2014, below) is a series of six dioramas of Ai’s 81 day incarceration in 2011, all modelled at half-size. The Chinese authorities should have realised that Ai is a tough and brave man, quite capable of getting his own back.

The exhibition ends in the Central Hall with Bicycle Chandelier (2015, below):

while outside in the courtyard is Marble Couch (2011) and Tree (2009–2010, 2015) - the latter, when nearly finished in September, can be seen on Western Independent Instagram.

In retrospect, it was interesting to compare this exhibition and the one at Blenheim. By comparison with the interiors of a baroque palace, the RA galleries seem almost clinical: better probably for learning about Ai and his work, particularly the larger indoor pieces, but lacking the resonances and juxtapositions of Blenheim which provided their own insight into this most political of artists. Ai spent the years from 1981 to 1993 in the USA, mostly in New York where, among other artists’ work, he encountered that of Andy Warhol. So Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, which will open at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia on 11 December, can be expected to start with this period in Ai’s artistic development. There will be a suite of major new commissions by Ai alongside key works from the past four decades, whereas the RA show begins in 1993.  Monica Tan interviewed Ai for the Guardian just before the Australian show opened.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy ends on 13 December.

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