I was interested to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: despite not being the biggest fan of modern art in general, this particular artist is well known for his commentary on censorship, the Chinese government and human rights. He first became well-known in Britain in 2010 when his sunflower seeds installation was present in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but this is the first major survey in the UK.
The exhibition was curated in collaboration with Weiwei, and covers the period from 1993, when he returned to China, until the present day. Some works have been created specifically for the RA.
I genuinely wasn’t sure what I would make of this exhibition, but I found it a worthwhile experience, getting me to think about the issues Weiwei raises in his work. I liked the way that contemporary Chinese society was juxtaposed with ancient culture.
Consisting largely of big installation pieces, on a first glance there isn’t a whole lot to look at in the exhibition, but in fact I thought the works had a surprising depth. The free audio guide definitely helped me find my way through the pieces. This n represents a map of China.
Another consisted of leftover wood arranged incredibly neatly, with pieces of ancient temple buried among the pile.
I was impressed by this stool sculpture. These works are apparently useful objects intentionally made useless, ancient artefacts modified by modern craftsmen, commenting on China’s past and present.
These tables were bizarre – quirky, but interesting. The craftsmanship is clearly evident, both in the pieces themselves and in the way they have been reshaped.
This work, consisting of material from collapsed buildings, represents the Szechuan earthquake of 2008, and the panels on the wall bear the names of those who died. Many of these were children, the details suppressed by the authorities as they did not want to admit that the materials for building schools had been skimped on.
This sculpture is made from material taken from an arts centre that Weiwei built, and that was forcibly demolished shortly afterwards.
This impressive sculpture also represents China.
This field is made of marble.
The marble buggy was created after Weiwei had an unpleasant experience of surveillance while he was out walking his son in his buggy.
I liked the room of cubes. This crystal one took a long time to create.
This one was based on a traditional kind of Chinese box.
This cube is made entirely of tea leaves.
This one is solid metal.
This map of China is made of porcelain.
These handcuffs are made of jade.
These bones might look real, but they are actually porcelain.
I really liked this wallpaper, which looks ornate and pretty but actually consists of handcuffs, CCTV cameras and the Twitter logo.
This set of boxes contain scale models of Ai Weiwei’s rooms while he was under house arrest and being watched constantly by two soldiers. Each has a window in the side and an opening on the top.
Weiwei has modelled himself and two soldiers in each model.
Finally, this chandelier looks fairly traditional from a distance, but close up you realise that it is, in fact, made of bicycles.
As I said, I wasn’t sure if I would be impressed by this exhibition but I really was. In all honesty, I was probably swayed by the knowledge that Weiwei had been placed under house arrest and come under scrutiny from the Chinese authorities – his art must be important for them to act in this way. Wrong or right, I did find myself thinking seriously about all of these works and they are still on my mind now.
The exhibition runs until 13 December. The Royal Academy is open every day, including late opening on Friday.