7 December 2015

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Ai Weiwei could be the most famous artist at the moment but I knew very little about his work. Obviously I was aware that he was a prominent Chinese dissident (the BBC delights in telling us stories about dissidents in China and Russia while ignoring stories about our own) and I would have gone to see his work, Sunflower Seeds, at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in 2010 if not for visitors being stopped from walking through it for health and safety reasons. That was not enough to make me want to go to the Royal Academy (RA) to see an exhibition of his work.

What swung it was the very positive reviews that I had seen, mostly via Twitter but also via the Art Fund app.

The popularity of the show meant that it was going to be busy whenever I went so I thought that I would go first thing (10am) on a weekday. I had some odd days of leave left to take and a day going to exhibitions was a good way to spend one of those days.

I took advantage of my Art Fund membership to get a ticket for £15.

The route to the RA was easy enough, bus to Richmond, District Line to Hammersmith, Piccadilly Line to Green Park and, finally, a short walk along Piccadilly. That takes about an hour without rushing so I was able to have bit of a welcome lie-in. On the day the lie-in overran slightly and I got to the RA around 10:15, still in good time for the first visiting slot for the exhibition.

The exhibition consisted of eleven connected rooms that I walked around once slowly and then went back around again to revisit my favourites. I took several pictures in each room and used a lot of self-restraint to pick just seven for this blog post.

Straight was in Room 3. The main story here was an earthquake in China which had killed a lot of people, including school children, and poor construction methods were blamed for causing many of the deaths. Ai Weiwei took the twisted and broken rebars (reinforcing bars) from the collapsed buildings, straightened them out and arranged them into this wavy pattern.

I deliberately took this picture with lots of people in it to show how big it was though, to be honest, it would have been impossible to take a picture like this without lots of people in it. It was busy and getting busier.

As with all of Ai Weiwei's work there were two aspects to it, the artistic impression and the political meaning behind it. I could appreciate Straight as a work of art but was unable to comment on the extent to which poor building construction caused deaths and even less able to comment on the Chinese government's role in this.

Next door in Room 4 were two pieces arising from a studio he built in Shanghai but which was never opened and was quickly demolished. Again, I've only heard Weiwei's side of the story so cannot comment on that meaningfully.

Souvenir from Shanghai was constructed from materials recovered from the demolished building. As with a similar piece in Room 1, I liked the way that the materials were put together to make something very solid and somewhat strange.

River Crabs, three thousand of them, represented the gallery opening after-party that happened despite the gallery not opening. I liked the absurdity of the piece and also the effort and skill that had gone in to making it.

Coloured Vases in Room 5 asked another set of awkward questions and again I was not entirely on Ai Weiwei's side. The questions were around antiquity and art, is an ancient vase improved if it is turned into modern art? In the most modest example, above, the vases were "improved" by painting them and in the most extreme one was "improved" by throwing it on to the ground to shatter as a piece of performance art.

I'm with antiquity on that one. If you want to destroy a vase then make a new one.

Room 7 had works made out of marble. In the background is Marble Stroller and the large piece on the floor is, unsurprisingly, Grass. As with others of his works, the construction was the thing that impressed me the most, then the appearance then the political point.

Possibly surprisingly after what I have said, one of the most overly political pieces was one that I liked the most. This was in Room 10. Ai Weiwei had been detained for dissent and he made six half-size models of this time.

Each of the cells had one small window on one side and another on the top so that we could look in. Each scene showed part of his simple daily routine, such as eating, having a shower or going to the toilet. Two guards watched him closely all the time.

The construction was, again, impressive but this time the political message shone through and seeing somebody incarcerated in a small room with two people watching over them was an easy message to understand.

The final piece, in Room 11, Bicycle Chandelier was the most approachable. It was what its name suggests, a chandelier made from parts of bicycles. It was commissioned for this exhibition and fitted the high domed room neatly.

The exhibition was very mixed in terms of the materials used, the sizes of the pieces and the motivations for producing them. Helping to make sense of all this was an audio guide and I made good use of this as I went round. There was a short audio for every piece which I listened to though I skipped the additional audio sections except for when I played them by mistake.

Ai Weiwei, for me, lacked the continual wow moments that the David Hockney exhibition had but there was plenty enough in there to demand an hour and a half of my time and to make me want to walk around for a second time to see some of them again. 

I am still not a great Ai Weiwei fan but the exhibition helped me to understand and appreciate his work, I also liked a lot of it. Straight was my clear favourite.

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