Something that strikes you immediately about the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy is that it is crowded. We went for the second time yesterday, a Friday morning, hoping that it wouldn’t as crowded as the Saturday when we went before. It was just as crowded, and people were deeply attentive not idly looking at the works. Ai Weiwei, a dissident but steeped in Chinese traditions, speaks strongly to people from this first Capitalist country and their many guests. Why? My hypothesis is that his works are beautiful and striking but infused with political and philosophical questions. People are encouraged to think and enjoy the thinking.
A related reason for the attentiveness if not the crowds may be that the audiovisual guide is free. It is part of the exhibition, creatively controlled by WeiWei himself, an artist, a sculptor, who believes strongly in the power of social media. Most of the people at the exhibition have taken the free guide, and it’s well done, including many short pieces from Weiwei himself.
What do I remember from the exhibition? If I put my mind to it I think I could remember everything, but what comes to my mind most easily?
The first is Straight, a huge collection of rusty iron rods that all but fills the floor of the largest room. The rods are arranged with a space in the middle, a space for the dead, the missing? https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/ai-weiwei On the walls are long lists of names. The effect is strong and beautiful and would be compelling if you had no understanding of the thinking and message behind the work, but once you do know the background its impact increases. The work commemorates people, particularly children, killed in an earthquake in China. Many people died because of poor building practices, the result of corruption. The rods were all taken from the ruined buildings. They were bent by the earthquake, but Weiwei and his team hammered them all straight. The names on the walls are those of the children who died. This is an intensely political work.
Next I think of the pile of ceramic crabs in five colours piled into the corner of the room. It’s funny as well as beautiful. It could be just a joke, but again there is a message. The crabs commemorate a feast held in Ai WeiWei’s Shanghai Studio, a feast that marked both the beginning and the end of the studio. The local government helped fund it but then demolished it when completed and before it opened “because it didn’t have planning permission.” In reality they demolished it because of Weiwei’s unacceptable political views, supporting free speech and democracy.
One of Weiwei’s most famous works are three huge black and white photographs that show him drooping and breaking a 2000 year old vase from the Han dynasty. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/ai-weiwei#gallery This seems deeply shocking, especially in a city where art is venerated and such a vase might sell for tens of thousands of pounds. Isn’t this sacrilege? Does it symbolise how China neglects its past? But was the vase real or a fake? China is filled with fake vases. But does it matter, especially if you can’t tell a real one from a fake.
The work that affected me the most was the depiction of Ai Weiwei’s 81 days under house arrest. A large room contains eight (or was it six?) large blocks, which made me think (fancifully?) of the Ming Tombs that I’ve seen outside of Beijing. Each one has a door in the side, and two places where you can see inside the “house,” one at the side and one on top. When you look through the viewing spaces you see convincing models of Weiwei, the soldiers who watched him constantly, an interrogator who appeared occasionally, and Weiwei’s bed, toilet, and shower. Sometimes you look down on Weiwei on the toilet or in the shower with the soldiers watching him. We are part of the surveillance. We feel uncomfortable, watching a man shit. The walls of the room are decorated with wallpaper showing surveillance cameras in the shape of the Twitter logo.
But perhaps the work that is the most fun is the “trees” in the courtyard put together from ancient wood. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/ai-weiwei They fit beautifully in the courtyard, filling the space, and combining with the statue of Joshua Reynolds. People, mostly young people, sit underneath them talking, looking at their phones, and taking pictures. People wander in and out of the trees. We contributed to the fundraising through crowdsourcing that paid for the trees to be constructed. I’m glad we did. I have an Ai Weiwei bell on my bike as a reward. Sadly it doesn’t work, but I like very much that anybody can enjoy the trees for free. Get there before they go, in just a few days.