In 2008 we went on a family trip to the Natural History Museum in Kensington. The Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition was being exhibited. Italian Stefano Unterthiner’s photo of a mischievous Sulawesi black-crested macaque won the competition’s Animal Potraits category. The image was known as “The Troublemaker”. I must admit I took a real shine to the photo.
Having seen Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, it is clear that his primary role is as an agent provocateur as much an artist. It is sad that such as role is demanded in the 21st century but as long as it is, there is no-one better qualified than Weiwei to fulfill it.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy houses some large examples of Weiwei’s work in eleven rooms. It expresses his take on Chinese culture and articulates his views on both the current regime in China and the 20th century regimes who have suppressed recent generations of his fellow countrymen.
Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957, the son of the poet Ai Qing. Qing was sent to a remote labour camp in northwest China when Weiwei was a baby, having been accused of “rightism”. Suppressed by the government led “Anti-Rightist Movement”, he was forced to clean toilets during the Cultural Revolution. The family only returned to Beijing in 1976 after Chairman Mao Zedong died in 1976.
Ai Weiwei entered the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 but when the censorship clampdown hit again, he moved to the USA along with many other Chinese artists. Censorship is still rife with one of the exhibits at the Royal Academy showing a Phaidon artbook with the page relating to Ai Weiwei removed from the Chinese edition of the book.
Ending up in New York (I’ve seen a great photo of Weiwei outside of CBGB’s), he absorbed the western modern art movements and eventually moved back to Beijing in 1993 when his father became gravely ill. The exhibition at the Royal Academy covers his work from his return to China onwards.
Many of these works are on a significant scale. Amongst these large scale items, the most emotionally affecting is “Straight” (2013). There was a huge earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, in which a number of schools were destroyed. The authorities sought to cover up the “tofu dreg” construction of the schools in the aftermath. The description is the material left after the production of bean curd i.e. flimsy and porous.
Weiwei and his team went into the area and investigated the catastrophic collapse of these schools, both from a structural and social perspective. He gathered the steel reinforcement bars from the earthquake zone and went about straightening out this rebar. He put this 150 tonnes of steel into a wave-like landscape. He also pieced together the details of the fatalities and logged the details of the dead children. This information had been suppressed by the state. Weiwei posted the names on his blog which was then shut down by the authorities.
In the gallery, these names are displayed next to the rebar. The monumental size of the both the reinforcing steel and the details of the children is overwhelming. Official sources recorded that over 5300 children died. The real total is probably more. The piece becomes hugely more poignant when one considers China’s single child policy – when these kids died, their parents most probably lost their only children.
“Marble Stroller” (2014) is a skilfully carved baby walker in a park, all carved in marble. It is overlooked by video surveillance cameras, also captured in the same stone.
The back story behind this one is surveillance. Weiwei had been taking his infant son for a walk around in Beijing. He noticed the constant presence of a photographer and decided to confront him. This personal protest is a constantly recurring theme. Weiwei managed to get the memory card from the photographer’s camera. It transpired that it was a secret service agent who had been snapping away at Weiwei’s son. The work skilfully captures the natural beauty of the grass, the detail of the stroller and yet looks sinister.
Weiwei describes himself as an ideas man:
More of chess player waiting for his opponent to make his next move
He has a huge studio where he employs technicians to complete his work. In the fascinating film “Never Sorry”, directed by Alison Klayman, one of these technicians describes himself:
We’re just his hands, we’re his assassins
At face value, it might appear that Weiwei is of a kin with Damien Hirst, in not producing his own work personally. This for me isn’t the case. Hirst now appears bereft of skill and substance. Weiwei is not just about the idea but its execution and especially the effectiveness of it. He’s got the Chinese authorities rattled. His rebellion is cheeky, sometimes subtle but always effective.
In any event, artists through the centuries employed their own staff to complete their work, including Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
This is all brought to a conclusion in a series of six dioramas in fibre glass containers that show Weiwei’s incarceration for 81 days in 2011. They depict scenes from his imprisonment which follows his troubles in Shanghai. The authorities invited him to build a huge studio, only to condemn it for demolition on the day it was completed on the spurious grounds that Weiwei hadn’t got the correct building permit. Weiwei organised a demolition party on social media (something that he’s incredibly adept at using). The party took place but Weiwei was arrested. His subsequent imprisonment was accompanied by two guards permanently standing over him.
They were there when he slept, showered, even used the toilet. This intimidatory behavior is captured in these pieces with small viewing windows providing the transparency that isn’t available in China.
My concluding thoughts as I left the exhibition were these:
- In the post Paris attacks environment, I understand the need to state surveillance. This exhibition shows how this quickly gets out of hand.
- Most importantly though, what the hell is the British Government doing in cosying up to this regime? Their neglect for human rights is manifest, yet David Cameron continues to court their trade without any apparent desire to seek an improvement in their behaviour.