For an artist, freedom and the ability to share ideas with other like-minded people is essential. In China, artists have to negotiate strict restrictions on what they can and can’t make. Yet these restrictions didn’t prevent Ai Weiwei, who has been detained, fined and beaten by Chinese authorities, from producing provocative art that is squarely aimed at Chinese political authority.
Creativity arises from rebelliousness, but as an artist you can’t afford to go to war alone with one of the most powerful countries in the world, especially in China, given the extent of state violations of human rights. There is an important ingredient that emerges in Ai’s personal story and his work – hope for a better future for his country. Just as much as rebelliousness, optimism is vital for creativity.
Ai Weiwei is a great example of how artists can thrive despite the odds. He has faced censorship and repression, and expresses this in his exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA) where his artistic sensibility breathes freely in the generous space given to him.
The centrepiece of his exhibition is the work “Straight” which is made out of some two hundred tonnes of bent and twisted rebar, the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings destroyed in earthquake in Sichuan in 2008. Every rod in this piece is hammered around 2000 times to make it straight. The piece is a tribute to the victims of an earthquake who died due to shoddy construction of school buildings, as well as a comment on the corruption involved in the construction projects. Running around the gallery walls are the names of more than 5,000 students who died in the disaster, whose identities were hidden by Chinese authorities to avoid negative press.
“The longer you look at his art, the more it lets you see”
Born in Beijing in 1957 to two poets, Ai is very interested in ceramics which are subject of his piece called Coloured Vases. He purchased some historic vessels, ranging from Neolithic pottery to Qing Dynasty porcelain from antique dealers. Interested in examining the authenticity of these vases compared to the fake ones which are difficult to recognise, Ai asks if the vase dipped in paint is more valuable as a contemporary artwork than it was before. Underlying this work is Ai’s exploration of the tension between old and new in relation to the rapid development and change in China.
How things are made matters in Ai’s work. “Bed” (2004) resembles a wavy wooden mattress, a three-dimensional map of China out of timbers once used for Qing dynasty temples.
Ai incorporates maps of China made of varying materials such as wood, milk powder cans and cotton into his work. One such piece is ‘’Free Speech Puzzle’’ made from porcelain pieces, each decorated with the slogan ‘Free Speech’, collectively form a map of China that reflects the distinct geographic and ethnic regions that together form modern China and which, despite their differences, ought to have the right to free speech as their principal common denominator.
Ai went through a period of house arrest, when CCTV cameras were used for surveillance on him. Ai is also a fan of expressing situations through videos, most notably recording the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the demolition of his Shanghai studio in 2011. In one room a carved marble CCTV camera and marble video camera sit opposite each other. This is more than a portrayal of personal experience. It symbolises Ai’s relationship with the Chinese state- he is both the watcher and watched, just as he attempts to reveal the nature, the state attempts to regulate him.
The recycling of culture and material is the final theme to Ai’s work that stands out. Ai’s model trees that stand in the RA’s courtyard are constructed from the mismatched trunks and branches of felled trees collected from the mountains in Southern China, only to reassemble them to create new trees. These artificial constructions have been interpreted as a commentary on the way in which geographically and culturally diverse people have been brought together to form ‘One China’, in a state-sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This is a politically powerful, provocative and satisfying exhibition. The longer you look at Ai’s art, the more it lets you see, but judge for yourself. The exhibition will be held in the Royal Academy of Arts, London till 13 December.
Words by Navjot Sangwan