The Royal Academy, London, is putting on the first major exhibition of Ai WeiWei in Britain in September. Elizabeth Craig takes a look at this contemporary Chinese artist who has lived and worked in such difficult conditions
If you type ‘Ai Weiwei’ into Google in China, nothing will come up. Despite being the most influential artist of the moment his name is, essentially, forbidden in his homeland. What makes this artist so controversial in China yet at the same time enthusiastically welcome elsewhere? In his activism you will find the answer. Contrasting the beauty of his works with the stark brutality of the Chinese Government, Ai has made his mark on the contemporary art world.
Having Ai ing, a poet dubbed “enemy of the people” as his father, Ai Weiwei was exposed to vocal activism from an early age. Growing up in Shihezi, injiang after his family was exiled from Beijing, Ai experienced political turmoil which greatly affected his beliefs later on in life. In 1976, on returning to Beijing after 16 years, Ai began his artistic journey. Enrolling in the Beijing Film Academy, he and six others founded the avant-garde group called the ‘Stars’ and exhibited a number of works over many years until 1983.
Ai moved to New York in 1981, returning in 1993, and it was during his time in the United States that he was exposed to artists who would be reflected in his own work today. Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, whom he has spoken about at length, have been a great influence in Ai’s work. Famously creating the ‘ready made’, Ai likened Marcel Duchamp (and Jasper Johns) to “the wise men of East Asia, their art is a mental practice”. Like Duchamp, Ai also holds strong anti-Government beliefs. This can be seen not only in his artworks but in his albums, tweets and blog posts (which have now been shut down by the Chinese Government). It was on his return to China that Ai began his more recent works such as: the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (something he was later critical about) Remembering 2009 which commemorated those who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and the 90-tonne installation,
Straight, which again remembers those who died in the earthquake and has been moved to the Royal
Academy for the forthcoming exhibition in September.
In the past few years Ai Weiwei has endured house arrest, prison, demolition of his studio, having his political writings shut down by the Government, a brain haemorrhage brought on by police brutality and had his passport seized. Despite all this, he continues to be labelled one of the most influential contemporary artists of his time and behind his outbursts lies an appeal for a more united and peaceful sense of humanity.
As a result, his works are not only aesthetically enchanting, they are politically charged. A keen activist (preferring to shy away from the ‘dissident’ label), Ai has artistically voiced his concerns about problems faced in present day communist China. One of his better known works, un ower
Seeds, challenged difficult problems such as mass consumption and the “Made in China” label. Beautifully crafted in porcelain by 1,600 artisans, the sunflower seed shells look identical but in fact each one is unique. Painstakingly handcrafted in Jingdezhen, famous for its porcelain, the work invites us to think about our role as an individual in society as one individual husk contributes to the whole collection, or a metaphor for society as a whole.
A more personal work displayed in Venice Biennale in 2013, S.A.C.R.E.D. depicted scenes of his life as a political prisoner in a set of dioramas. Peeking into the boxes the viewer becomes a voyeur as Ai’s incarceration is recreated through scaleddown versions of his prison cell, himself and his two guards. Under constant watch, Ai revealed how even mediocre activities such as showering, needed security surveillance. Anyone gazing in can feel his vulnerability during his 81-day imprisonment. Having first encouraged a sympathetic reaction from the viewer, Ai ultimately subverts this and changes the role of the viewer to become part of his surveillance. Although only for a brief moment, we become part of Ai’s incarceration and watch over him as he eats, is interrogated or sleeps thus giving us an uncomfortable sense of power.
Characteristically Ai’s artwork often features innovative ways to express his ideas and grab the attention of visitors. Despite having had his passport confiscated for many years, Ai’s voice continued to be heard worldwide. Reportedly tweeting every hour and stimulating huge interest in his powerful exhibitions, he was able to strongly reiterate his stance on creating a new China. Creatively informing society, one exhibition at a time, Ai Weiwei exposes the brutality of China’s most controversial cover-ups.
A much anticipated three-month exhibition of some of Ai’s most famous works opens at the Royal Academy in September which will display creations from recent years and also some new, unseen additions. This will be the first time so many of his works have ever come to Britain under one roof. Tim Marlow, Artistic Director and co-curator of the exhibition, stated “ he exhibition will gi e an extensi e new audience the chance to experience a creati e phenomenon that is at once radical, political, architectural, historical, poetic, materially in enti e and transformati e e en before they e walked through the ourtyard”.
Appointed as an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy, Ai has worked in close collaboration with the team for the exhibition and has been said to have taken an architectural approach to the layout of his exhibition. Finally having had his passport handed back to him in July 2015, this time Ai will get the chance to see his work exhibited, something that has been denied him for many years.
eft Ai eiwei in his studio in aochangdi, ei ing, taken April Image © arry earce entagram, 2015) Abo e, top Coloured Vases, 2015. eolithic ases - with industrial paint, dimensions ...