Ai Weiwei – Royal Academy
You must have lived in a hermetically sealed bubble not to have heard of the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and that he is the subject of the Royal Academy’s major exhibition this autumn. He is, after all, a consummate self-publicist. And it is not hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for him. His so-called dissident activities have brought him to the attentions of the Chinese authorities, causing him to have his studio destroyed and him being incarcerated in prison, spending periods under house arrest and living under travel restrictions.
I first came across his work at the Tate Modern some time ago when he filled the Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain seeds. The nagging question I had as I went to the Members’ Preview at the RA was there any substance behind the public persona? Is his art any good? And the overwhelming feeling I had on exiting was probably not. Mind you, by the time I go to the exhibition I was not in the best of humours having walked through a torrential cloudburst – I looked as though I had wee-weed my trousers. The force of the rain meant that the collection of tree like sculptures in the courtyard received only the most cursory of inspections.
The principal impressions of an exhibition spread out over 11 galleries are of the sheer scale of the exhibits – it must have been a logistical nightmare transporting and assembling some of the pieces and the size and weight of the exhibits must be testing the load bearing limits of the venerable old building – and the underlying sense of vandalism running through much of his work.
I hope Neolithic pots and vases from the Hang Dynasty are ten to the yuan in China. Be that as it may, there is something inherently wrong in my view in painting them in gaudy colours or putting a Coca Cola sign on one or displaying a cupboard of jars stuffed full of dust from crushed Neolithic pots. And then there is the triptych of photographs showing our artist dropping a vase from the Han dynasty – all in the name of art!
Weiwei is a master recycler. Perhaps for me the most satisfying piece is in the final gallery – an enormous chandelier with bicycles forming the central part of the structure. Fragments in the fifth gallery uses wooden beams from four temples and pillars made from Ming dynasty furniture to create an odd structure which you can walk through. But the real meaning of the piece – apparently it is shaped to represent the geographical limits of China, something which can only really be appreciated from on high – is lost on the viewer.
Souvenir of Shanghai is made from a pile of rubble – what was left of Weiwei’s studio after it was demolished by the Chinese authorities – interspersed with elaborate wood carvings. Later on, we have a room comprising of cubes made from crystal, wood and one from compressed tea leaves. In some of the earlier galleries pieces of furniture, principally stools, are conjoined to make interesting shapes and, of course, we have the coat hanger bent into the shape of man’s face, the famous Hanging Man.
Probably the most powerful piece in the exhibit is Straight which features a mass of metal rods from the damaged buildings in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake laid out to make an undulating pattern with the names of the 5,000 child victims posted on the walls.
I also liked the enormous piece called stroller, made out of marble and featuring a perfectly carved push chair in a field of what looked like bunches of two-bladed grass. To remind us of porcelain seeds we have a pile of crabs made out of porcelain in a corner of one of the galleries and of his incarceration a series of dioramas representing various aspects of his life under lock and key. The latter were strangely underwhelming and had something of an exhibit an impecunious provincial museum would knock up to attract some attention.
Weiwei’s work certainly was provoking and the RA are to be commended for putting on this first major exhibition of his work. But it didn’t really grab me. I have enormous sympathy for him as a man and his fight for freedom of expression and rather like Voltaire, I left thinking I may not like your art, but I will fight to the death for your right to produce it.