Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most recognisable and contentious artists, as famous for his outspoken criticism of the government of his native country as for his art. His condemnation of state corruption and suppression of human rights and free speech has seen him beaten by government agents, hospitalised, and imprisoned.
I won’t claim to have a vast amount of knowledge on Ai Weiwei, his work, or be able to regale on stories of his life and struggles as an artist and creative in China. I do however have a past experience of his work back in 2012 when 8 million ceramic sunflower seeds filled a vast floor space in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. This amazing feat, thanks to his army of helpers gave me an ever-lasting impression and was so pleased to be given another opportunity to view other pieces of his life’s work. This review will be more of a visual diary as apposed to me writing a load of words on a subject I can’t do justice, I’d rather his work told the story and that you were able to search and dive into the vast pool of knowledge that surrounds us in the worldwide web. I will add some small quotes to some of the images, along with extracts about the pieces taken from the Royal Academy Exhibition In Focus Guide.
We were more than aware that this was a show that we couldn’t miss, dubbed one of the best exhibitions to of graced the grand halls of the RA, but our afternoon almost didn’t quite go to plan.
The tickets were booked and despite a damp and miserable day and sickness, we dragged ourselves across town in anticipation of what we were about to view. The projects Creative Director Aaron had visited the previous week and had told us it was in one word “AMAZING!” and that in it’s self was good enough for us. The queue to get past security was out onto the street; and, after a very brief bag search we were into the main queue to collect our tickets, weaving our way through the first exhibit 'Tree'. Ai’s trees are made from parts of dead trees that are brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ai transports these to his studio in Beijing where they are made into trees. As he says, “it’s just like trying to imagine what the tree looked like”. Held together by hidden mortise and tenon joins and large industrial bolts, the trees look natural from a distance and artificial from close up. Tree has been likened to the modern Chinese nation, where ethnically diverse peoples have been brought together to form ‘One China’, a state-sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
With eight individual trees placed together in the Annenberg Courtyard, this installation will be the largest single gathering of Tree to date. The scale and ambition of this work will not only make a lasting impression on those visiting the Royal Academy but will amply reflect the broader aspirations and scope of Ai Weiwei in the Main Galleries.
The queue opposite had been closed, as all remaining tickets were sold, no more entries, the end of the end, so we were relieved to have our tickets secured waiting for us.
"On my blog I kept asking the same questions: Who is dead? How many? What are the costs? Where are the bodies? Nobody ever answered."
We had made it beyond the door and all that lay between us getting entry was the ticket collection. I produced my order reference number, but there was a problem, the lady behind the counter double-checked and then gave us the unforeseen bad news “Your tickets were for 3am!!”…”3am!!!???” How could this be possible? She explained staff had been working ridiculous hours, so that the gallery could stay open through the night to accommodate the demand to see this show. Never in my years would I of even thought that a 3 o’clock ticket would have been 12hours prior, when I was very much asleep. The feeling of sheer dejection and disappointment was very apparent, my girlfriend giving me ‘that look!!’ was enough, she’d travelled across town carrying a heavy chest infection and would of rather been in bed. So that was that then…. Or was it?? In an instant a woman behind us in the queue tapped Lyndsey on the shoulder, thrust two tickets into her hand, claiming she had two spare and as we spun around to thank her and offer her money, she vanished into the thronging crowd and disappeared from view. We looked at each other a gasp; there really are some good human beings out there. From the jaws of defeat we had somehow been given a second chance and a full refund.
We climbed the stairs up to the exhibition halls, clutching our tickets like we’d just opened the winning Wonka bar. Strapping on our digital media devices and joining the huddle that stood beneath the incredible chandelier constructed of bicycles stripped down to their bare frames, light bouncing off them and the jewelled supports like it was a full time fixture swinging from the ceiling. The first room housed the first exhibit simply named ‘Bed’ which certainly didn’t look like a place to lay your head or take solace. This piece created in 2004, an ironwood "map" of China's borders. The materials are recycled from Qing dynasty timbers.
The second room is much smaller, heavily crowded but with mobile phones snapping and SLR shutters firing of shots like rounds from a gun. The first piece to capture our attention was called 'Grapes', 27 wooden stools cartwheeling statically, joined together using ancient Chinese joinery techniques, again from the Qing Dynasty. The room is also dominated by a huge wooden pillar, named 'Table and Pillar'. The piece appropriately takes centre stage in its Royal Academy gallery. Ai bought its component pieces – originally from a southern China temple – from a furniture dealer at a high price, as the wood was so valuable it was sold by weight. Yet its significance to the artist derives not from its monetary value, but from the insight it offered him into his country’s past, as well as the technical challenge its reconstruction presented. Ai’s assistants employed the same techniques in realising the work as did their Qing dynasty predecessors. After stripping back the original table, they painstakingly reassembled it using no nails or adhesives, calling attention to China’s history of craftsmanship as well as to the structure and material of the work itself: a scratched wooden table into which a 4.6-metre cylindrical wooden pillar, partially painted red, is embedded, soaring vertically towards the ceiling. As Ai himself has noted, he and his assistants expended a tremendous amount of effort in creating what is now a ‘useless’ object divested of its original meanings and context, but which nevertheless alludes to recent government drives towards a highly industrialised and modernised China.
We made our way into the next room where we are confronted by 'Straight'. The extract from the production guide along with the video below will give you the staggering story behind this amazing piece of art and engineering.
THE SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE
Ai took to exceptionally purposeful and powerful blogging, and later tweeting, after the devastating Sichuan earthquake on 12 May 2008, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, left over 90,000 people dead or missing and rendered another 11 million people homeless. Upon discovering that the collapse of twenty shoddily constructed schools caused the death of many school children, Ai clamoured for the government to admit that corruption had enabled builders to ignore safety codes when erecting the schools, and to publish the names and the tally of the children who perished. His pleas were routinely met with silence. He relates, ‘On my blog I kept asking the same questions: Who is dead? How many? What are the costs? Where are the bodies? Nobody ever answered.’ Dismayed yet spurred into action by the government’s refusal to release information to the public, as well as by his belief that ‘the worst tragedy is disrespect for life’, Ai visited the earthquake site and took photographs. He also created the Citizens’ Investigation project in December 2008, seeking to identify the names of the schoolchildren killed in the earthquake. He used his blog to enlist the public’s help by encouraging individual and community responsibility, as in this post published on 20 March 2009: ‘People interested in the Citizens’ Investigation, please leave your contact information […] Your actions create your world.’ Two hundred civil volunteers responded to Ai’s call, going door-to-door to speak to parents in the region. The artist posted on his blog whatever information they uncovered, and ultimately compiled a list of 5,192 names of children. ‘This investigation will be remembered for generations as the first civil rights activity in China. So, to me, that is art. It directly affects people’s feelings and their living conditions, their freedom and how they look at the world,’ he has declared.
Although the Chinese government eventually released a list of the dead, Ai’s political engagement and investigative success came at a high price. Not only were his volunteers arrested by local police, but the authorities also permanently shut down the artist’s blog, and installed the first of several security cameras opposite the front door of his Beijing home and studio. Furthermore, on 12 August 2009, police broke into his Chengdu hotel room at 3 a.m. (he had been in Chengdu to attend the trial of civil rights activist Tan Zuoren) and beat him so badly that a month later, after intense and frequent headaches, he was rushed to hospital in Munich with a cerebral haemorrhage. He recorded and disseminated evidence of both the beating and his hospitalisation online.
Ai also documented the substandard quality of the collapsed schools by diligently collecting and utilising their steel rebars in 'Straight', 2008–2012, a 200-tonne installation that implicitly memorialises the students lost in the earthquake. The artist employed craftsmen to heat and then straighten each piece of quake-twisted steel, manually restoring them to their pre-disaster condition. Viewers could be forgiven for believing that nothing had ever happened to the rebars, were it not for Ai’s inclusion of an apparent ground fissure in the installation’s design and the artwork’s noticeable resemblance to the Richter scale. Indeed, Straight’s power derives in large part from the interplay between its restored pre-quake surface and its underlying dedication to those who died in Sichuan.
Minds blown we step into the next room to be confronted by a reconstructed brick building, with ornate wooden carvings framing the rubble, named 'Souvenir From Shanghai'. There was more to this piece than met the eye, an incredibly harrowing story from the guide.
A SOUVENIR FROM SHANGHAI
'Souvenir from Shanghai', 2012, attests to Ai’s belief that the ‘building served its purpose. It doesn’t have to stay any longer after it was viewed. This is all part of the architectural process – to destroy something, to vanish […] The moment it is built, it is already successful.’ Although the authorities cleared the rubble and stored it in a warehouse so that the artist could not create an artwork from it, Ai thwarted them by collecting some of the concrete and brick from the ground, and using it – together with a Qing dynasty rosewood bed frame – to construct 'Souvenir from Shanghai'. His orderly arrangement of the brick and stone rubble once again evinces the artist’s respect for all of his materials, and the creative value he gives them.
Ai Weiwei further commemorated the studio’s existence by tweeting an invitation to the public to join him for a feast of river crabs. A 21 October 2010 tweet announced, ‘On 7 November, the Ai Weiwei Studio will have a river-crab feast for its demolition,’ followed by the studio’s address in Malu, Jiading District. But on 5 November, he tweeted the following message:
"The Beijing State Security and Chaoyang State Security have come to declare the decision of their superiors: Ai Weiwei, immediately until 12:00 on the 7th, is under house arrest. He may not leave his residence. Outside the door of Caochangdi 258 [Ai’s studio] the police are standing guard. Please take care of the Twitter friends of the demolition of Ai Weiwei’s studio in Malu Jiading, Shanghai, and the grass mud horses who have come to the river-crab feast. Accept my greatest apologies". - @aiww
While Ai’s house arrest prevented him from attending his own party, approximately 800 guests enjoyed stewed beef, pork and asparagus, fresh bread, white rice, and 10,000 local river crabs. Even from afar, the artist managed to have the ceremony broadcast internationally in near real-time, rendering those who attended or watched the river-crab feast witnesses to the studio’s brief existence.
At the half way stage are minds are blown, this is a man who has had so many obstacles to over come throughout his life, but is able to continue his methods and work ethic despite going against the grain of the system. Walking into the next room the imagery on the left wall shows a memorable moment in Ai’s career. This room dedicated to the ceramic work of Ai, piece such as 'Dust to Dust' 2008 thirty glass jars filled with powder from ground Neolithic pottery (5000–3000 BC) displayed upon wooden shelving, 'Coloured Vases' 2015 twelve Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and four Neolithic (5000–3000 BC) vases with industrial paint, centre piece for the room, raised upon a platform.
Since his return to China in 1993 Ai has systematically engaged with ceramics.
He purchases historic vessels, ranging from Neolithic pottery to Qing Dynasty porcelain,
in markets and from antique dealers. These are grouped and classified by period and style before his interventions. Ai is very conscious that markets are full of fakes being sold as originals, and that only experts can distinguish between them.
The creation of forgeries interests him since the same skills and traditions used to create the originals are used to create modern versions. The question of authenticity is, therefore, central to this body of work. By extension, he is also interested in value: is a Neolithic vase dipped in paint or ground to dust more valuable as a contemporary artwork than it was as an original? In China, which is so marked by rapid change and development, Ai exposes the tension between old and new.
Ai produced his first 'Coca Cola' vase in his ongoing series in 1994.
The logo of the ubiquitous soft drink is emblazoned across the vase, blurring notions of history and global branding. In ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ he overtly refers to the wilful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects that took place in the decade following Chairman Mao’s instigation of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Ai’s impassive face in the photograph can also be seen as a reference to the lack of protection given by the authorities to the historic fabric of many of China’s development.
Through the arch into the next room we could see what looked like a large wooden climbing frame, on looking closer we could see it was so much more. The reoccurring theme of reclaimed wood transformed into incredible statement pieces.
"Everything is a misfit and connected wrongly"
One of Ai’s most ambitious sculptures, ‘Fragments’ is an amalgamation of his Furniture and Map series. Created using architectural salvage from four temples and items of furniture from the Ming to be a random construction made from unrelated objects.
As Ai says “ Everything is a misfit and connected wrongly.”
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). The sculpture can be traversed, allowing the visitor obliviously to permeate the borders of China and cross the country freely, much as tourists do when they visit, in a way that Chinese citizens cannot. The different geographic and ethnographic identities of the country are rendered immaterial and China is presented as a skeleton.
Despite its robust construction, this skeletal form suggests an inherent fragility that can be seen as a commentary on the concept of ‘One China’, the state-sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Offcuts of the salvaged timbers used to make ‘Fragments’ were kept and used to create ‘Kippe’
The seventh room and another material, a sea of off white marble dominates the floor and surrounding display pillars. In China, as in many countries, marble is symbolic of wealth and power, and the material has historic associations with both Imperial and Communist China. Some years ago Ai purchased an interest in the Dashiwo Quarry in Fangshan, where white marble has been quarried for hundreds of years.
Marble from Dashiwo was used in the construction of the Forbidden City between 1406 and 1420 and, more recently, in the creation of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square following his death in 1976. Ai has everyday objects sculpted manually in marble, pushing the limits of this brittle material’s tolerance as well as the skill of his stonemasons.
In choosing to use a material associated with China’s imperial past and the immortalisation of Mao Zedong, Ai has turned these household objects into monuments on a domestic scale that commemorate moments society.
The surveillance camera is a copy of the twenty placed around his studio-house to monitor his every movement. The gas mask is a stark reminder of the thousands of vulnerable people who suffer serious respiratory illnesses or die every year from the polluted atmosphere of Beijing. ‘Cao’ has many interpretations: for instance, the word means grass, as well as being a widely used substitute for a swear word on the internet.
The four corners of room eight were home to cubes of different composite, each as intriguing as the next, each one with it's own story and of equal dimension as the next.
In these works Ai has combined his interest in form and volume with his respect for materials and traditional Chinese craftsmanship to create a series of cubes with sides of one metre. Cubic metres are universally used to measure quantity, for example when ordering concrete or timber. The measure is temporary or transient since the material loses its cubic form as soon as it is turned into something else during construction of a building.
Ai, however, makes the cubic metre permanent by choosing different materials in which he creates objects of the same size but with very different properties. These cubes can also be seen as an expression of Ai’s interest in minimalism, a feature of his architecture. His choice of material and surface texture gives them a distinctive Chinese identity.
‘Cube in Ebony’ references a small box that Ai’s father gave him. Its scale and surface the object becomes impractical. Yet it still requires the same skill of the craftsman, and the quantity of material used in its manufacture makes it an object of unimaginable opulence.
‘Treasure Box’ is a monumental version of a traditional Chinese puzzle box with a series of hidden parts that have to be manipulated in order to open the box successfully. The large scale of Ai’s version, with its exquisite marquetry, makes it impossible for one person to open it. When unlocked it reveals a wealth of compartments, each finished to the highest standard.
The penultimate room was incredibly crowded as the final visitors made their way back and forth through the rooms, looking to soak up every last ounce of opportunity within the walls of this great exhibit. The walls each wall papered with a repetitive motif, on closer inspection Ai's sense of humour was very apparent.
Ai has produced a group of exquisite showcases mimicking those in which desirable objects of high value are typically displayed. Here, however, he has subverted their anticipated contents. Despite the richness of their materials and their superb levels of craftsmanship, the works in these showcases refer to human- rights abuses, lack of freedom of speech and state censorship as well as more playful objects such as sex toys and cosmetic containers.
A pair of handcuffs carved from a single piece of jade references Ai’s secret detention in 2011. In the Chinese edition of ‘The Art Book’ Ai is replaced by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Agostino di Duccio, in response to state censorship. A set of bones recovered clandestinely from a former work camp in north-western China – a region where many intellectuals were interred and lost their lives during the brutal regime of Chairman Mao – is meticulously re-created in porcelain.
A number of individual porcelain pieces, each decorated with the slogan 'Free Speech', collectively form a map of China. They are based on traditional pendants of various materials that bore a family’s name and served as markers of status and good-luck charms for the wearer.
The wallpaper, featuring a raised middle pattern, references two previous works by Ai ‘Marble Arm’ 2007, a disembodied arm and ‘Study of Perspective’ 1995, a series of photographs Ai has taken of himself recognised gesture of contempt – at buildings and monuments such as the White House and Tiananmen Square.
The final room of this amazing journey on first impressions looked like a golden palace, heavily wallpapered, with 6 large boxes covering the entire floor space, with a gridded pathway passing between them. On closer inspection, it was so much more, each box having small windows around the side or on its top for the viewer to experience something quite shocking and horrifying as the same time incredible and quite beautiful.
On Sunday 3 April 2011, Ai was arrested at Beijing airport as he prepared to travel to Taipei.
He was illegally detained at a secret location for 81 days. Initially handcuffed, he was accompanied 24 hours a day by two guards who were forbidden to communicate with him. The only source of ventilation for his windowless room was a small wall fan. Ai memorised every detail of the cell, whose walls and every piece of whose furniture were wrapped in plastic.
On his release on 22 June 2011 he was forbidden to discuss his incarceration and was placed on parole for twelve months; in addition to this his passport was withheld. Despite this restriction Ai re-created six models of his cell, all half actual size, and engaged in different activities under the watchful eyes of his guards.
The dioramas of ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.’ reveal how degrading Ai’s detention was and leave little doubt that the intense and claustrophobic experience he underwent was designed to break his spirit and discourage him from publicly challenging the Chinese authorities.
Following Ai’s release, his company Fake Design Ltd was formally charged with tax evasion.£1.5 million and gave 15 days to pay. The public offered their unsolicited support by giving him money towards settling the tax demand. Some threw donations over the wall of his studio compound while others contributed online. Ai responded with ‘I.O.U.’, a work in which he wrote promissory notes to each of these 30,000 donors. These notes were in turn scanned and turned into wallpaper.
The wallpaper work ‘Golden Age’ is decorated with the Twitter logo, a pair of handcuffs and a surveillance camera, all presented in gold, referencing Ai’s interest in social media and the curtailment of his personal freedom by the authorities.
The end of the exhibit is upon us, but not without another great piece of dialogue, a piece like those before it in the exhibit with it’s own fantastic story.
Ai first began working with chandeliers in 2002: “I became interested in light as an object: both the object that gives off light, but also the form the light creates by itself in the illumination that it creates, and how illumination alters the surrounding environment.”
Ai’s point of reference was the grand chandelier of the vast Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square; he even sourced his crystals from the same place, in Zhejiang province. At around the same time as he made his first chandelier work, Ai began creating sculptures and installations with bicycles.
When collecting kindling as a boy, he used to ride a Forever bicycle, a Chinese brand, mass transportation of the urban workforce before cars became widely available: “My work with them started from the question how can the bicycle use its structure to grow according to its own logic.”
These bicycle sculptures, are designed to be placed inside or outside, from the small scale, using two bicycles, to the monumental, comprising 3,144. The present work is the first in which Ai has combined the two ideas, creating a chandelier from bicycles. The white crystals are suspended from the rims of the bicycles’ wheels and cascade down in illuminated sculptural installation.
And that brings us to the end of our visit, back to where we started beneath the ‘Bicycle Chandelier’ an amazing experience, a stroke of total luck and a new belief in all the great humans out there. If the lady who gave away two tickets reads this…..Thank You!!
For a comprehensive profile of Ai Weiwei, and an in depth look into his work be sure to check out the Artsy.net providing visitors with Ai's bio, over 132 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Ai exhibition listings.