Chinese contemporary artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s works are just stop you in your tracks fantastic as the fusion of history, politics and art is just so compelling. Ai’s father, artist Ai Qing, was incarcerated and sent by Mao to northwestern China with his family when Ai was a child, and sentenced to hard labor, during which he had to clean toilets for years. His father was eventually rehabilitated but it is no wonder Ai has become vocal in political art, condemning “China’s suppression of human rights and free speech” through his art, and twitter account.
In the Royal Academy of Arts’ exhibition of Ai Weiwei a total of 45 older and newer works of Ai were presented in exhibition spaces which were easy to follow and were not difficult to appreciate despite the crowds.
One of his most stunning work is Straight made up of straightened steel reinforcing bars used in construction which were salvaged from the ruins of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan and took Ai’s team years to bring them to their straight original state. The earthquake, due to faulty, poor construction had killed more than 5,000 students and the walls of the large space of where Straight is displayed, is covered with Names of The Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, the names of all who died in the earthquake, and were in fact covered up by the Chinese government.
On the walls: Names of The Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation, 2008-2011
Marble Surveillance Camera, 2010.
While the exhibition included works of Ai seen in all different parts of the world in public and private collections and exhibitions, the final gallery included 6 large boxes of which the interiors of each can be viewed from windows on the side and above. Reminiscent of how you are always “watched”, in each box a half-life size Ai Weiwei is observed in six instances of his incarceration by the Chinese government—without any charge-- from which he was released after 81 days but without his passport. Named S.A.C.R.E.D. for Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt, in each diorama Ai is never alone.
View from above
I first saw S.A.C.R.E.D. in the 55th Biennale of Venice in 2013 at the San Antonin church; but here, even though one knows that his passport finally was released to him this past summer and that he has now moved to Berlin to join his son and his mother, it has an even more somber feel. The exhibition, his “first major survey in the UK” explores “Chinese culture, history and material .. alongside Ai’s relentless campaigning for free speech and human rights”, and seeing his works all in one place together evokes even stronger feelings than they all can individually.