It’s difficult not to have heard of Ai Weiwei the activist and political dissident but this was my chance to view the skill and artistry of Ai Weiwei, the artist, at his first major survey exhibition in the UK.
It soon became apparent as we walked through the nine rooms that displayed his sculptures that it would be impossible to separate the man from his work. From small-scale ceramics to large-scale sculptures and installations, from photographs and videos to wallpaper and furniture his subject matter and the resources he uses are indivisible from his country, his culture and his politic views.
As an activist he has been outspoken about The Chinese government’s suppression of human rights, state censorship curtailing artists’ freedom of expression, the lack of transparency after the Sichuan earthquake and the treatment of workers during the building of the Olympic stadium. For daring to be critical, he has had his blogs shut down, has been beaten and imprisoned. His right to travel has been forfeited, his phones have been tapped. He’s been followed and photographed and his studios have been subjected to surveillance cameras. Despite the manner in which he has been treated Ai Weiwei has remained focused on his art.
Many of the materials he works with are typically Chinese such as marble, jade and porcelain. We see a pair of white marble handcuffs, a marble security camera, both evocative of how he has been treated by the authorities. White marble is also the chosen material for Cao 2015, a sculpture of grass that relates to Caochangdi (green field) the village on the outskirts of Beijing where Ai built his elegant brick studio. The word cao or grass is often used in Chinese literature to refer to the common people, the masses. The irony of using imperial marble for this sculpture is implicit.
Ai salvaged and used the historic fabric of Beijing, the thousands of rods that once held up the buildings before they were twisted and mangled in the force of the Sichuan earthquake. They were reclaimed, straightened by the artist and his assistants and made into the installation entitled, Straight, which takes up one whole room in the gallery, a floor sculpture made out of “history, stories, blood, tears and labour” according to Ai.
Treasure Box, 2014 is a cube sculpture made from honey-coloured hauli wood from which luxury Chinese furniture has been made since the Ming period. The sides are crafted in wood in different shades and shapes. When you walk round the cube the interior is exposed, revealing shelves at different levels, a Chinese puzzle waiting to be solved. It is like a giant Rubik’s cube but can also be seen as a piece of furniture. Tradition and modernity are combined in this work. The seamless joinery, emblematic of Chinese craft, highlights this combination of past and present.
So many images from this exhibition remain with me, signifiers of Ai Weiwei’s take on Chinese history and his own experience: the fond humour of the twisted coat hanger, The Hanging Man, the profile of fellow artist, Duchamp: the installation comprised of 3,000 porcelain crabs, He Xie 2014, – the homonym for crabs in Chinese is “harmony,” a word often used by the government so more than a touch of irony here: the two million-year-old, repainted ceramic pots in bright garish colours, yellow, pink, purple and red named Coloured Pots.
One of the most compelling installations has to be S.A.C.R.E.D (2011-13) which depicts Ai Weiwei’s experiences of being incarcerated in 2011. A series of six shoulder height iron cuboids with apertures in the walls and roof reveal fibreglass half size replicas of Ai and two guards inside each cube. He never saw the outside of the room in which he was imprisoned so the outsides are stark, minimal cubes in an empty space. The interior of the room in which Ai was detained for 81 days and the nature of his time spent there are shown graphically. The limited space, the lack of privacy, the basic facilities, the absence of books or art materials meant that he was able to catalogue in his mind every detail about his life there. Ai does not consider himself a martyr, but an everyman, representing all those who suffer injustice. We look through the apertures or stand on a step to look through the roof, voyeurs of his imprisonment. We watch him perform his ablutions, sit on the lavatory or sleep, watched by the ever-present guards. We are outsiders, eager to share and understand what he had to endure.
His imprisonment may have been intended to clip Ai’s wings, but the publicity it brought had the opposite effect. He continues to make art to show abroad and this summer has taken part in several exhibitions in Beijing. He believes his art can help to represent those who do not have a voice. His art has been criticised for being too calculating in its political intentions. Seeing this exhibition, has made me realise that, although Ai Weiwei’s work is political, driven by a compulsion to fight for a fairer world, he is also focused on creating new art forms. If those new forms are powered by his political passion for change they are all the stronger for that.
If you have a chance, do go and see this exhibition. If your reaction is anything like mine it will stimulate your intellect and your emotions and fill you with wonder. What more can we expect from art?