Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei opens major London show

16 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Ai Weiwei in London.

LONDON (AP) — It was an unexpected photo opportunity, as Ai Weiwei stood inside London’s Royal Academy of Arts Tuesday surrounded by 20 years’ worth of his artworks. The Chinese artist is world famous for works addressing human rights abuses, official corruption and the collision between Chinese culture and Western consumerism.

In July, Chinese officials unexpectedly returned Ai’s passport after four years, allowing him to visit Britain for the opening of the academy’s major retrospective show. “We didn’t think he’d come,” said Royal Academy artistic director Tim Marlow, who co-curated the exhibition. “We thought eventually he might be able to travel, but it could have been months, years. As it happened, it was weeks.” There was one further snag when the British Embassy in Beijing turned down Ai’s request for a six-month business visa, giving him a shorter visa instead, on the grounds that he had failed to disclose a criminal conviction. Not exactly a retrospective, it is certainly the best show of his work I have seen anywhere, as well as being the best thing I’ve seen at the Royal Academy, London, for years.

It will give the viewer a chance to analyze this extraordinary artist in both his “activist” mode and also experience the pure aesthetic pleasure that is imbued through his use of materials, technical virtuosity, scale and repetition. Ai was jailed for almost three months in 2011 amid a wider crackdown on dissent, but wasn’t charged with a crime. “We’re not playing down Weiwei’s role as a social activist and a historian and a political campaigner,” he said. “I think his courage and bravery is inextricably linked to his art. Ai Weiwei’s ‘Forever’ installed outside the ‘Gherkin’ in the City of London, as part of the Sculpture in the City 2015 series of public artworks (PA) Ai was born in China in 1957 where his father was a dissident poet.

But I think he’s a phenomenally inventive artist, and that shines forth.” Ai’s work is both political and playful, which leads some to question his high-art credentials — a skepticism also directed at the equally famous graffiti artist Banksy. Those who have doubted Ai’s integrity and seriousness (I have never been among them), or his qualities as an artist, should find plenty to pause at here. Entering this exhibition we are confronted by his beautiful furniture works, including Table with Two Legs on the Wall (1997), made of materials from the Quing dynasty (1644-1911). The exhibition includes a pair of jade handcuffs, a 2,000-year-old vase painted with the Coca-Cola logo and a surveillance camera carved from white marble — from the same quarry that supplied Chairman Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. Other works are more directly political. “Straight” is an undulating carpet of steel reinforcing bars salvaged from the rubble of a 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province.

More than 5,000 students died when shoddily constructed schools collapsed. “Remains” consists of porcelain reproductions of human bones, belonging to an inmate who died in a Chinese forced-labor camp. Thinking Ai might shut up after his 81-day incarceration in 2011, and the bulldozing of his newly completed Shanghai studio by the authorities, the Chinese government got it wrong. One room contains six recreations of the cell where Ai was held in solitary confinement in 2011 — complete with models of Ai and two guards, positioned a foot away as he read, slept, showered or used the toilet. Ai Weiwei, Video Recorder, 2010 I ask Ai how many people worked on straightening the metal and he says “there were about 100 people involved in the whole project.

Names of the student earthquake victims found by the Citizens Investigation, a text work surrounding this piece, chronicles the loss of over 5,000 children. In the rotunda Bicycle Chandelier (2015), an improbable mash up of bicycles (a familiar Chinese sight), and a crystal chandelier will shed both light and joy on the viewer. Called Bed, it is really a map, but you have to lie down next to it to see along its length, and appreciate how the edge traces the geography of China’s border, with its snaggly promontories and indentations. By now my clothes are dusty, even before I notice how this huge timber construction is made from innumerable sections, all perfectly dovetailed into one another in a complex of saw-cut meetings across and through the grain. This is more than a matter of recognising or demonstrating the consummate skills of Chinese woodwork and cabinet-making, marble-carving, metal-working, modelling and casting.

Ai has purchased part interest in a marble quarry and has chosen to exhibit here replicas of the security cameras that were placed to monitor his movement. Such skills, with their long history, are not redundant, even though so much has been lost in China’s surge to modernity, in a fog of pollution and destruction. Much of Ai’s work is also about recycling: the grove of bare trees that stands in the RA’s courtyard has been constructed from the mismatched trunks and branches of felled trees, each an amalgam of sawn and dovetailed parts.

There have always been questions about whether minimalism was itself authoritarian and somehow anti-human in its regularity, with its preference for the grid and the machine-made surface. A group of cubes comprise a sheer-sided ton block of compacted tea, a delightfully carved enlargement of a small ebony box his poet father once gave him, and an intricate puzzle box with hidden, sliding and interlocking compartments for treasure. Inside, you can see the grim conditions of Ai’s 2011 imprisonment: these half-scale models of his prison – he was forbidden to discuss it, but remembered the place down to the smallest detail – show scenes of his nightmarish life there. A room with an acrobatic dance of stools and furniture doing impossible things is followed by the wails, shouts and screams of Ai’s video Little Girl’s Cheeks in the next and largest gallery at the RA. We see building inspectors aghast at the shoddy “tofu-dregs” construction of the collapsed schools and overhear phonecalls to stonewalling public offices.

These have now been stacked across the floor, creating a kind of landscape of longer, shorter, thicker and thinner bars, rising a few inches from the floor.

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