CHINA:

Ai Wei­wei

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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 ...

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