Ai Weiwei @ The Royal Academy

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Liberty is about our right to question everything.

Ai Weiwei

Living in Hong Kong for over a year, I did hear Ai Weiwei’s name a few times so was intrigued to see an exhibition in his name at The Royal Academy. A contemporary artist and social activist, Ai Weiwei is unafraid to criticise the Chinese government and committed to uncovering the censorship and human rights abuses that occur within it. Covering the span of the last two decades, since his return to China from the US, the exhibition at The Royal Academy is Ai Weiwei’s largest one to date in the UK and is a stunning insight into the work of an incredible man.

One piece that really struck me in the exhibiton was a series of photographs that showed Ai Weiwei holding, and then subsequently dropping, a Han Dynasty Urn so that you see it smash into tiny, irreparable pieces. At first it is shocking to see. A relic so old is often enshrined behind a protective screen in a museum. Yet to see its fragility, and its ability to be destroyed and remade into contemporary art is refreshing. With the breaking of the historic urn comes the breaking of boundaries when it comes to art. In the same room, accompanying the photographs, are shelves of old pottery ground to a fine dust and urns brightly painted or pasted with the Coca Cola logo, reminiscent of pop art. In ‘destroying’ these relics and creating new pieces of art, Ai Weiwei raises questions about whether these art pieces are more or less valuable now and about how they account for or represent the changes to Chinese society over the last century.

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Another grand piece, both in terms of scale and theme, is Straight (2008-12), which is heralded as one of the most important political artworks in the last 15 years. Taking up the space of one large exhibition room is around 90 tonnes of metal from the devastation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Each piece of metal has been individually straightened and represents the 5,000 children who died as a result of the cheap, poor-quality materials that went in to building government-run schools and which, consequently, allowed this devastation to happen on such a large scale. Around the walls are the names of each child Ai Weiwei tried to uncover in a blog he set up as a result of this catastrophic disaster – a blog that was subsequently shut down by the government. He was also illegally put in prison shortly after this event and his portrayal of this can be seen in one of the final exhibits which holds numerous prison cells with viewing grills to peer in at. In each encased room is Ai Weiwei in different positions and situations, replicating his day-to-day life whilst in prison over those 81 days.

If a nation cannot face its past, it has no future.

Ai Weiwei

Ai WeiweiUnfortunately, this exhibition at The Royal Academy finished a few weeks ago (I just managed to get a ticket before it closed) but there are a couple of interesting documentaries, that I hope to watch in the future to learn more about Ai Wewei, who is such a relevant contemporary artist. The first is  Never Sorry which documented Ai Weiwei over the space of three years as he prepared for exhibitions, spent time with his family and came to blows with the Chinese government. The second documentary, Without Fear or Favour, was first broadcast before Ai Weiwei’s arrest in 2011 and again after he was released from the Chinese authorities. This also documents his life and art as one of China’s most politically active and outspoken artists in the twentieth to twenty-first century.

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