Ai Weiwei is a master story-teller, albeit with a political twist. His art installations bring stories, history and meaning into the physical presence and you can see why the Chinese authorities don’t quite know what to make of their most famous contemporary artist.
Ahead of his exhibition at the Royal Academy, and before he was given permission by the Chinese government to leave China and by the British authorities to enter the UK (after a slight wobble), his work “Still Life” created with 4000 stone-age axe heads was installed at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester as the centrepiece of the exhibition on Chinese art from the M + Sigg Collection. Painstaking and precise in their arrangement, they are a gesture to the Chinese authorities not to lose sight of China’s history in the search for the modern future and to keep the past alive as an important part of Chinese culture.
At the Royal Academy, each gallery tells a story; so well does the work fit the spaces that they might almost have been made for them.
The Chinese authorities are nothing if not inconsistent in their relationship with Ai Weiwei. Selected to work on the successful design of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, Ai was asked in 2008 by the municipal authorities in Shanghai to build a studio to kick-start an arts district to emulate the development around his studio in Caochangdi on the outskirts of Beijing. Finished in October 2010, it looked a fine building which the authorities then perversely instructed should be demolished, while Ai was placed under house arrest and prevented from being at the feast of crabs (also slang for censorship) to celebrate both the opening of the new building and its demolition as the bulldozers came in. The history of this event is remembered here through photographs and a model of the studio and of its destruction, by crabs crawling over the floor and climbing up the walls and by a sculptural work, almost in the form of a shrine, made from rubble of the studio which Ai managed to salvage.
A year later, in April 2011, Ai was arrested at Beijing airport and illegally detailed in a windowless cell at a secret location for 81 days. Handcuffed for the first 30 days, he was constantly supervised by two guards who were forbidden to communicate with him; it can’t have been much fun for the guards, let alone Ai. This is now recorded in S.A.C.R.E.D, as Ai remembered every detail of his cell and recreated six half-size copies populated by models of himself and his guards, surrounded by the wallpaper work “Golden Age” with the Twitter logo, handcuffs and surveillance cameras all in gold, referencing his interest in social media and the curtailment of his freedom by the authorities while another wallpaper I.O.U. records the gifts and donations made by 30,000 donors to enable him to pay off his alleged £1.5 million tax bill within the 15 days demanded by the authorities.
In May 2008, a powerful earthquake shook the Sichuan province destroying 20 schools and killing more than 5000 students. Perhaps embarrassed by allegations of substandard construction and corruption by local representatives who turned a blind eye to poor materials and shoddy construction, information on the names of the victims was not provided by the authorities and Ai and a number of others had to establish a citizens’ investigation. This incident is commemorated in “Straight” where bent and twisted metal bars from the devastated concrete structures was purchased and straightened by hand and returned to its pre-construction and pre-earthquake condition and laid out on the floor in a formation that makes it look almost natural. It is surrounded on the walls by the “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens Investigation”.
In other galleries, historic tiele timbers from the Qing Dynasty have been beautifully assembled into “Bed” a three dimensional map of China which has been rolled out and laid flat like a mattress using the skills and craftsmanship of traditional carpenters, a skill that is potentially being lost in the fast pace of technological change and Qing Dynasty furniture is converted into objects of beauty by total impracticability as “Grapes” made from 27 stools into an acrobatic sculpture and “Table with Two Legs on the Wall”. “Fragments” uses architectural salvage from Ming and Qing temples which appears as a child-like conjunction of elements, but if it could be seen from above it is the image of a map of China and represents the ability of visitors to the gallery in London to move across the boundaries and across the country in a way that citizens in the country cannot do, with Taiwan represented by a pair of conjoined stools.
The map of China reoccurs elsewhere – built up out of a jigsaw of porcelain pieces, each hand painted in Qing Dynasty imperial style and bearing the word ‘peace.’
Finally, in the central gallery, hangs a chandelier made of bicycle frames, combining two of Ai’s interests where white crystals are suspended from the rims of the ubiquitous bicycle wheels and cascade down to create a dramatic light, which from a distance looks like a chandelier that would grace a Park Lane hotel,
It is obvious that Ai loves his country and its history; the Chinese authorities need to recognise this and celebrate their most famous contemporary artist.