Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy: Freedom Through Art

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Ai Weiwei is the talk of London as his major retrospect opens at the Royal Academy. As exhibitions go the organisers couldn’t have been more lucky. The crowd funding campaign to bring Weiwei’s Tree to the Royal Academy’s courtyard smashed its £100k campaign, Weiwei was reunited with his passport with Teresa May stepping in to extend his UK visa and now an undoubted exhibition hit that will certainly see a record visitor attendance on the horizon. The buzz is palpable and rightly so, Weiwei’s story is one of determination against oppression, standing up for human rights in a country that is set against freedom and self expression. His art speaks for the millions of people who are repressed not only in China but throughout the world.

I feel dizzy even thinking about the significance of Weiwei’s art and there’s a danger that the political weight of it can overpower the actual work itself. Thankfully that’s far from the case. This retrospect carries its message proudly, educating those who have no knowledge of China’s oppressive regime whilst still leaving enough space to appreciate Weiwei’s conceptual pieces as significant and sublime works of art.

Following periods of Weiwei’s artistic life the Royal Academy’s rooms have been grouped around materials and themes; furniture, marble, cubes, ceramics and so forth. Having never been to the Royal Academy before I was particularly taken by the open space and lightness of the space. Despite an incredibly busy time of day (who knew that Wednesdays were the art goers day?) light flooded into the spaces adding softness to much of Weiwei’s work.

Weiwei’s play of material is seen throughout this exhibition.His furniture that morphs from practical object to twisted decorative pieces such as tables with three legs, or stools fused together in glorious circular structures, are curious adaptions; held in traditional materials whilst twisting their uses today. Weiwei use of marble to create intricate sculptures such as Cao in which hexancgle blocks form hundreds of delicate pieces of grass to represent the common people of China to his Surveillance Camera, a reminder that the government are always watching. His subversion of material is a theme that is constantly returned to, manipulating and redefining what these works can mean when focused with a political message. Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is nicely placed with his Coloured Vases, both pieces destroying precious antiques whilst reframing them as a statement for clarifying what history can mean today “we can only build a new world if we destroy the old” notes Weiwei.

Whilst these pieces play with form it is Weiwei’s directness in Straight and S.A.C.R.E.D that had me quivering. Straight is the colossus piece that dominates the central room within the Royal Academy. Painstakingly straightening iron rods that were collected from the debris after the Sichuan earthquake, this statement piece is chilling. These rod supports caused thousands of deaths as buildings that should have withstood the quake toppled like cards. Lists of the innocent lives lost, many of them children, line the walls with a documentary video showing Weiwei’s team retrieving the rods and trying to gain statistics from the government make for a difficult viewing.

Weiwei’s S.A.C.R.E.D meanwhile tackles his own experience of the Chinese government’s authoritative regime. Six installations depicting the artist’s captivity during his interrogations by the government line the space. Each work presented like a steel box that requires visitors to peer through small windows reveals intricate fibreglass models of Weiwei and his guards. We see him sleeping on a bed, showering, using the toilet or writing at his desk, each with two guards looming next to him. S.A.C.R.E.D is an incredibly powerful piece, rendered from Weiwei’s memories of the room he was held within.

Throughout the retrospect Weiwei’s work chips away at not only his right for freedom but every human’s right. His work echoes repression from across China. Where the work is subtle it is boldly understood, and when it is overt it is explosive. There’s a deafening silence that hangs across Weiwei’s work and one that sticks with you long after you leave the exhibition. It is the power of conceptual art to evoke emotion, educate and empower the individual. Weiwei’s work is an inspiration, it challenges in all the right places and whilst at times it feels cold it is only because the subject is so difficult to understand for those of us living in the freedom of their country.

Ai Weiwei is showing at the Royal Academy until 13 December. I recommend reading the Exhibition in Focus to gain further insight into Weiwei’s work.