Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts in London was superb. It is large scale, with old and new work. The spacious rooms allow big installations, like the work inspired by the deadly earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, when some 20 schools collapsed, killing some 5.000 students. Their names and birthdates are duly remembered on a wall. Following the earthquake Ai clandestinely purchased 200 tonnes of the steel reinforcing bars used in the concrete buildings and straightened them by hand. Straight 2008-2012 can be seen as a reminder of the poor construction techniques of China’s state schools.
Such a monumental work seems to beg the question: Why is the government not taking care of building straight, honest buildings? Children and students lay under the rabble, whilst corruption made a few richer.
“Living in a system under the Communist ideology, an artist cannot avoid fighting for freedom of expression. You always have to be aware that art is not only a self-expression but a demonstration of human rights and dignity.” (Ai Weiwei)
Raising all these questions to the consciousness of Chinese people came at a price. Inspiration for another big installation that is part of the exhibition came from a real life event: his 81 days in prison in 2011 for alleged tax evasion. ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.’ is composed of six huge boxes in the shape of containers with small windows for people to look inside. His life in prison was closely monitored to the most intimate of moments and Ai Weiwei turns that experience to the audience that is given the possibility to take a peek at a life under full surveillance. It is now the guards and the repressive state that is under scrutiny by amused visitors.
A skilled craftsman
The level of craftsmanship in his work with different materials is striking. For instance in the way he models white marble into the forms of contemporary objects such as a pram, a camera, a gas mask, a surveillance camera and even grass.
Ai Weiwei the architect
Ai Weiwei is also an architect and as such he designed his own studio. He bought land outside the city and created an interconnected space that drew inspiration from the surroundings houses, in order not to be out of context. However authorities used an alleged lack of planning permissions to completely destroy the studio. Destruction, well documented via a documentary shown next to the model, is almost surgical, even the remaining rabble was taken away the same day, as if nothing had ever been built there.
Some of his older, more iconic work included his series of thousand years old vases, revived with color, where the juxtaposition of old and new catches the eye and invites to reflect.
And there was more than this post can cover as the artist is incredibly prolific. Currently there are other exhibitions, such as the one in Melbourne, that focused global attention around LEGO donations he is receiving at collection points placed outside museums and art institutions. His constant use of social media makes him an accessible artist. Instagram is his current medium of choice, and if you start following him you will notice a rich flux of images of his surveilled personal life mixed with his artwork and message. In December 2015 he has been documenting his travels in Europe and launched on Facebook a project with refugees: Ai Weiwei Camps.
“I don’t have this concept that separates my art from my daily life. They are one thing to me. They are always one. How do you find the way to express yourself and how to communicate with others?” (Ai Weiwei)
Photos: Culturaal, Beppe Simone CC BY-SA 4.0