I had no prior knowledge of Ai Wei Wei before coming to this exhibition. People literally went crazy about it. I saw advertisements everywhere. Posts and reviews and articles flooded my newsfeed. Who is this Ai Wei Wei exactly? Where is he from? What does he do? Why is everyone talking about him?
And so I went to see his exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art – his first major exhibition in the UK, and in the world after a long while. Ai Wei Wei’s story is long. His arts, or what he claimed to be ‘political arts’, receive global attention, controversially or highly acclaimed by the contemporary art world.
Meanwhile, my first impression was, no matter what it is, and on so many levels, “It’s huge”. Let me walk you through some of the objects on display that have left me with thoughts and questions.
#1. Tree. The literal meaning of “huge”.
“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.” – Adrian Locke, Curator
Watch the timelapse video of Tree’s installation:
#2. Straight (2008 – 2012)
In 2008, Ai Weiwei gathered a group called ‘Citizen’s Investigation’ for his quest in recovering the truth about the number of students that are victims of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake took place in Sichuan, which he believed had been covered up by the authorities, and at the same time uncovering the truth of Chinese officials corruption. He wrote on his blog:” To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors…we will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.” The list, which had accumulated to 5385 names as of 14 March 2009, is now displayed on the wall of Royal Academy of Arts.
The work composed of 90 tonne of straightened steel rods, used to reinforce concrete building and collected, mangled from the site of the earthquake that devastated Sichuan in 2008. ‘Straight’ stands in for the victims of the natural disaster, which was exacerbated by the government’s cavalier attitude towards construction safety protocols.
Tim Marlow, artistic director of the RA and co-curator of the exhibition, said: ” When he was released, he came back to the studio and the first thing he heard was the team working on the rebars. He said it was incredibly powerful.”
Hundred of interlocking marble sculptures of grass, with a marble troller. The word ‘cao’ means grass, but it is often used in Chinese literature to refer to the common people. And occasionally people can also find it in place of swearwords online.
#4. River Crabs (2010- ).
“The word for crab, ‘he xie’, is a homonym for harmonious, we are told, and much bandied about in Chinese government circles. There is not much harmony here among the crustaceans. The word is also used a lot on the internet in China, as slang for censorship. Thinking Ai might shut up after his 81-day incarceration in 2011, and the bulldozing of his newly completed Shanghai studio by the authorities, the Chinese government got it wrong.” – Adrian Searle.
This piece left people in awe, and an aching neck.
Chandelier is a a five-meter tall chandelier of crystal and light. Another luxury, the chandelier is a symbol of extravagance for Ai, who grew up in exile without lights or candles during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Left alone all the political elements and background, I think this piece is by far the most efficient use of scale and quantity I have ever seen. Beautiful and oddly satisfying.
#6. (Ah. Here is the portrait of the man) Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995.
While others accused him of devastating the history, in Ai’s perspective, ‘transforming’ the 2000-year-old antique urn to a new form is the true appreciation of its value. (In fact, two urns, not one, were sacrificed in the making of this work, due to the failure of Ai’s photographer to capture the first urn’s fall to the ground).
Ai Weiwei, according to ArtReview 2011, is named the most powerful artist in the world. Though it was an unusual choice as ‘Ai’s varied, scattershot work doesn’t fetch the highest prices at auction’, and despite ‘critics, while they admire his achievement, don’t treat him as a master who has transformed the art of his period’, Ai has become a symbol of the struggle for human rights in China. Having spent his formative years as an artist in New York in the 1980s, Ai’s criticism of China portrayed through his daring and politically charged works makes him the perfect artist to hold up a mirror both to the failings and potential of this powerful nation. He would use medium or genre of all kinds – sculpture, ready-mades, photography, architecture, performance, tweets and blogs – to deliver his pungent message.