Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei set for huge London retrospective

16 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy.

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. That might seem a rather grudging thing to ask about a man widely regarded as a hero of our time, but the 58 year old Chinese artist would be the first to admit that it’s his dignified stand against the repressive policies of the Chinese government – involving periods of incarceration, house arrest and restrictions on travel – that has made him arguably the most famous artist in the world today.

We may have had previous opportunities to consider his talent — in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, at the Lisson gallery or at Blenheim Palace — but the RA’s show presents an opportunity to stand back and assess his cultural contribution. Only a tiny fraction of those who have observed his plight and become familiar with his impassive, bearded, Confucius-in-trainers persona via the media have seen any of his art first hand – and that includes his best known work in Britain, Sunflower Seeds, comprising 100 million porcelain seeds in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

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. The first thing that strikes you is the grand scale of the work, from a small forest of dead trees – bolted together from discarded boughs – in the R.A. courtyard, to a gigantic chandelier made of bicycles, that quintessential Chinese form of transport, hanging in the central rotunda.

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. Even when held in a solitary confinement Ai has maintained several studios – including, at various times, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Berlin – employing a small army of assistants. 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). As with every exhibition by a non-Western modern artist there’s the looming question of how much is a product of the globalisation of contemporary art – in which work from everywhere tends to look a bit similar – and how much could only have merged from his particular cultural background.

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. His well-publicised smashing of a Han dynasty vase – commemorated in a triptych of photographs – feels a classic neo-Dadaist gesture with a Chinese twist. 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.

Transforming objects in unlikely materials (a surveillance camera in marble, for example), putting things in vitrines or backing them with themed wallpaper are all techniques we’ve seen a bit too much of over the past few decades. 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. Straight, for example, a field of rusting steel rods, undulating wavelike through the largest gallery, weighing 96 tons, is immensely impressive simply as an abstract physical object. 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. When you learn that the metal was salvaged from schools destroyed by an earthquake in Sichuan province in which over 5,000 students were killed, with each damaged bar straightened by hand in Ai’s studio, the work takes on an extra, vastly more powerful dimension.

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. In Fragments, one of a number of works drawing on traditional furniture and building techniques, Ai arranges chunks of wooden beams from four temples into a multi-arching, walk-through structure with pillars growing out of pieces Ming dynasty furniture – all with no discernible purpose.

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. You might assume Souvenir of Shanghai, a massive block of rubble inset with elaborate pieces of traditional woodcarving, to be the remnants of another ancient monument. 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. It is in fact what’s left of Ai’s Shanghai studio which was demolished by the authorities in 2011 for supposed contravention of planning regulations.

The fact that Ai was under house arrest at the time didn’t stop him summoning 800 supporters to a lunch in the building where they fed on river crabs, a traditional symbol of tyranny. 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.

He expands the metaphor with He Xie, a mass of river crabs meticulously realised in porcelain (though they might at a glance be plastic) crowded into a corner of the room – the homonym for river crab spelling, paradoxically, harmony. 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.

If the symbolism feels at once over-elaborate and a touch facile, Ai’s wrestling with obstructive bureaucracy is impressive in its sheer doggedness. The culminating room is the most extraordinary, comprising six large oxidised iron boxes, each with a peephole, through which you look in on a diorama, with half life-size fibre-glass figures recreating scenes from Ai’s 81 days of illegal detention in 2011. He portrays himself alone in a tiny cell or under interrogation in a kitsch socialist-realist style oddly evocative of both Christian scenes of the Passion and the sort of didactic tableau that was prevalent under Mao.

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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