And here he is: Ai Weiwei is in London! It’s funny to think that three years ago I didn’t know who he was. Since then I have been continually hearing about him, and I have seen his trees in contemporary art fairs (FIAC) and art spaces (Berlin’s Boros Collection). But it was when I saw the public queuing – me included – to have a selfie with him that I realised how big he has become.
Royal Academy (RA) representatives encouraged us to take pictures while we were making our way through the RA exhibition of Ai Weiwei. Curator Adrian Locke insisted it is a survey rather than a retrospective, showing Weiwei works from 1933 onwards, when he returns to China.
Knowing Ai Weiwei’s upbringing is key to understanding his activist works. Weiwei was born in one of Beijing hutongs (alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences). He has had a varied career, going from street portraits on Times Square when he lived in New York during his 20s, to working with architects from Herzog & de Meuron designing Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. His father Ai Qing, a celebrated poet in China, was sent to a labour camp along with one year old Ai and later the family was forced into exile.
The RA includes Straight (2008-12), a powerful work made after the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008. The work commemorates victims of the earthquake, mostly children from state schools as the structures were found to be second rate. Weiwei took many photographs and collected reinforced rebar from the collapsed schools, which he straightened in his studio. 96 tons are displayed at the RA, as the floor could not bear the full weight of the 160 ton original work. It was Weiwei’s first instance of dramatically defying the Chinese government as he claimed that buildings were not safe and victims were not identified.
Later on, the city of Shanghai invited Ai Weiwei to build a studio following on the success of Caochangdi, on the outskirts of Beijing, where a vibrant arts quarter has grown up around Ai Weiwei’s home and studio. Once completed however, the central government revoked the permission and announced plans to demolish the building in January 2011. Ai turned to social media to announce a celebratory lunch for the upcoming demolition. He could not attend as he was under house arrest, but river crabs were served, leading to the work He Xie, 2011, made of 3,000 porcelain crabs. Weiwei used the materials from the demolished studio in Souvenir from Shanghai, 2012, filling the inside of a bed with the remains of his Shanghai studio. Weiwei continued to defy the government in works such as Baby formula, 2013, following the scandal of baby milk contaminated with kidney damage causing melamine, not shown at the RA.
The RA exhibition allowed me to understand his practice beyond his celebrity persona, in particular the family background that in my view motivates his activist works. Like the recent Anselm Kiefer show within the same walls, you crave more, but the exhibition is limited by the Royal Academy space constraints. But it goes from hit to hit with the pièce de résistance being a new site specific work Bicycle Chandelier, 2015, weighing 2.5 tons. Wow. The Ai Weiwei exhibition runs at the Royal Academy until 13 December 2015.