“The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.” Ai Weiwei

It is this fearlessness and determination that characterises the Royal Academy of Art’s latest exhibition on the political Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.

Image by Harry Pearce

Ai is renowed across the world for both his activism and his art. From his hometown of Beijing, he has fought with the Chinese authorities on issues of free speech, censorship and human rights with high personal costs. Ai’s art is not crafted in isolation to his beliefs, with pieces created in direct response to the tragic 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, his own detention in prison and cultural obliteration.

The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) is presenting his first major exhibition in the UK, and it displays work from 1993 onwards after Ai returned to live in China after a ten year residency in the US.

Coloured Vases 2015

On the 12th May 2008 a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan which left over 90,000 people dead or missing. Amongst the destruction, 20 poorly constructed schools collapsed killing thousands of children. Ai went to the site to investigate and discovered a tragic tale of corruption leading to the schools having fatally unsubstantial foundations.

He created the Citizens’ Investigation project in December 2008 that was used to identify the names of the children that died in the disaster. In the RA these names are displayed alongside Straight (2008-12). This exhibit is 90 tonnes of steel rebar, the material used in concrete blocks, and he and his team straightened the bars by hand to create this powerful memorial.

The Chinese authorities reacted to Ai’s investigative work with violence, as surveillance on him and his studio increased and in August 2009 he was beaten so badly by the police it resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage.

Straight, 2008-12

The increased attention that the powers that be paid to Ai resulted in a house arrest and a demolition of a studio in Shanghai, that the city authorities had invited him to construct. This is where his famous porcelain crabs came into being as Ai organised a party to be had, in his absence, at the studio where guest enjoyed 10,000 local river crabs.

If your Mandarin is not up to scratch there’s also another semantic layer here – ‘He Xie’ means ‘river crab’, but it has also come to mean censorship within Chinese society. The plethora and multitude of crabs represent a defiance to this control.

He Xie, 2011
He Xie, 2011. Image by Laura Stevens

In 2011 Ai was detained for 81 days in a secret location. Arrested for “subversion of the State”, two guards silently watched his every movement, never further than 80 cm away.

In an act of solidarity the RA elected Ai to Honorary Royal Academician status.

From this terrifying experience, S.A.C.R.E.D was conceived. Six dioramas present the horrifying claustrophobia of the imprisonment, a notion compounded by the voyeuristic manner of viewing through a small opening in the sides and ceilings of the walls.

Surveillance Camera
Surveillance Camera, 2010
Wallpaper. Image by Laura Stevens
Wallpaper. Image by Laura Stevens

Upon his release, Ai’s passport was confiscated and it was only in July 2015 that it was returned. This exhibition was conceived long before then, and was meticulously planned out through architect plans of the RA, video footage and skyping.

Ai being able to view this exhibition in London makes it even more special as it is the first in nearly a 100 exhibitions over the past five years that he has been legally allowed to attend.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

These travel restrictions have not stopped his work spreading far and wide through Ai’s prolific use of social media, including Twitter, which he admitted once spending over eight hours a day on the site. It’s also encouraged new and novel ways to fund his work such as the RA’s Kickstarter project which raised £123,577 to bring the site specific Tree to London. Now standing proud in the RA’s Courtyard are eight trees, each seven metres tall, where anyone is able to wander and visit.

By hosting Ai’s work, the RA has placed itself at the forefront of political, exciting and important artwork in the UK. A bold and disconcerting exhibition is the result, but what else would you expect from an artist who says:

“An artwork unable to make people feel uncomfortable or to feel different is not one worth creating. This is the difference between the artist and the fool.”

And by this measure, Ai is no fool indeed.

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