The major exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work at the Royal Academy was always going to be a major event. His position as a internationally recognised campaigner for freedom of expression and democracy in China, the continuing and self-defeating harassment of the Chinese authorities and the coincidence of the recent state visit by the Chinese premier all combined to give this exhibition the maximum possible exposure. The question though is whether the content of the show matched the expectation and exposure?
The answer is yes. Although I was uncertain at first, the show built momentum and meaning room by room, continually engaging and challenging the audience and leaving us rather overwhelmed by the end. Weiwei is a conceptual artist dealing with fundamental issues of freedom of expression in a country which does not accept that freedom as a basic human right. Being a conceptual artist, Weiwei is typically more concerned with the process of producing the piece being exhibited, and with the story that the process of production (or, gathering, assembling, creating or commissioning) reveals than with the final artwork itself. In some cases that means the story is perhaps more powerful than the piece, but they are both fundamentally powerful it creates something extremely moving.
Perhaps the high point of the exhibition is the large central room given over to the memory of some five thousand schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. The earthquake happened during the school day and the very high number of casualties was the direct result of shoddy school construction, in turn resulting from building funds having been siphoned off corruptly. No official figures were released on school deaths and the figure had to be collected, under police harassment, by Weiwei and others in a bottom up citizen’s investigation. Weiwei also clandestinely purchased 150 tons of bent reinforcing bars from the fallen schools, had them taken to his studio in Beijing where they were straightened by hand to form a memorial to the dead. These bars form the centrepiece of the room with the walls lined with the names of those who were known to have died. It is a moving memorial to deaths which can be blamed in large part on the effects of corruption.
In 2011, Weiwei was arrested as he was about to fly to Taipei and illegally detained at a secret location for 81 days. In the small room where he was held, he was accompanied and watched by two guards, 24 hours a day but no communication was allowed. Weiwei succeeded in memorising every detail of his cell and on his release created a series of models of the sale, at half actual size, in which he recreated aspects of his incarceration. The models are presented as series of dioramas into which one peeks like a voyeur at his predicament. Again it is profoundly moving.
One of the extraordinary things about the art works on display is how much the Chinese government has created the story behind each piece by their actions. The case of the studio-house in Malu Town near Shanghai is. Case in point. Weiwei was invited to design a studio house by the municipal authorities, anxious to replicate the success of another Weiwei studio near Beijing. The building was completed in October 2010 at which point the government intervened, declared that the necessary permissions had not been obtained and ordered its demolition. The demolition took place in January 2011 but was filmed. Weiwei was also able to obtain enough of the broken fragments of the building to create a shrine to the lost studio.
All in all this is a powerful exhibition, featuring the work of a brave and thought-provoking man. I went concerned that the celebrity status of Ai Weiwei, now perhaps the world’s most famous artistic dissident, had perhaps got ahead of the substance. I left convinced that it had not and that this is an exhibition that everyone should see.