Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy: possibly one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a gallery

Ai Weiwei at the RAOne of these days, I’ll become one of those organised and useful bloggers. The kind who share Christmas tutorials in November, so you’ve plenty of time to make the craft before the big day. The kind who don’t have photographs sitting on their hard drives for months on end before writing the accompanying blog post. The kind who go to amazing, inspiring art exhibitions on their opening weekend and tell you about them when there’s still months left to book a ticket.

But, erm, I’m not yet that kind of blogger, I’m afraid, and so it is I am posting about the utterly amazing and unmissable Ai Weiwei exhibition a mere few days before it closes (at the end of this weekend, Sunday December 13th).

On the other hand, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about it in the first place, since it seems to have been the big ticket show of the year; the one that’s been thronging with people since it opened.

I visited last week, on a wonderfully sunny, though bitterly cold day.

I usually find that the higher my expectations of something, the more likely I will walk away disappointed, but, despite my already high expectations, I was absolutely blown away by the show.

The art was beautiful, which is a brilliant start. So much of it tactile, made of wood or marble; natural visceral elements. The construction was also awe-inspiring. Ai Weiwei works not only with materials that have a long history in China, but also with craftsmen who use traditions that date back centuries.

Stools at Ai Weiwei Stools at Ai Weiwei

Inspecting one of my favourite pieces, the circle made of three-legged stools, which on first sight I thought were probably glued together, I realised that a leg of each stool became a leg of its neighbour as well. The entire piece, in fact, carefully joined into one.

Fragments by Ai Weiwei at the RA, LondonFragments by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London Fragments by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

Or the huge sculpture, Fragments, made from salvaged beams from demolished Qing dynasty temples: the sculpture takes up the whole room and you can wander through its arches. Apparently random as you see it from the room but from above, it makes up a map of China, though – of course – you can’t see that viewpoint in the gallery.

Bicycle chandelier by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

Also breathtaking, the final piece is a huge chandelier, made from crystals and bicycles. The crystal (and chandeliers) used by the wealthy. The bicycle, of course, the chosen method of transport for many in China’s vast cities.

What I hadn’t necessarily been expecting (partly because I hadn’t read up on it in advance of visiting…) was to be so moved by the politics of the work.

I knew, of course, that Ai Weiwei is a political dissident, detained frequently in his own country and not allowed to enter the UK to curate the show. But I knew little about the specifics behind those stories.

Straight by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

Straight by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London Straight by Ai Weiwei at the RA, London

My favourite room was the one housing Straight, a sinuous giant sculpture made of straight rods, laid out in lines, the end of the rods creating a curving shape that moved throughout it.

The accompanying videos told the story behind the piece. Earthquakes in Sichuan province in 2008 brought down many buildings, but it was the schools that were the worst affected. As government-built properties, they had suffered from shoddy building work, lack of foundations and poor building materials (bribes and corruption said to be to blame). Thousands of children died, but the government refused to release a full list of names.

In all of the buildings, mangled rods, supposed to protect the integrity of the buildings, were left sticking out.

Ai Weiwei gathered and bought the rods as scrap, and his team painstakingly straightened every single one, so that they looked as they would have done before being used. They are arranged on the floor of the room with a full list of the names of everyone who had died written on the walls.

Powerful stuff.

More info

  • The show is open until the end of the weekend and — due to the overwhelming numbers of people wanting to visit — the gallery is open 24 hours a day for Saturday and Sunday. So, if you still want to visit and you’re close to London, then get over to the RA! More info on their website here: Ai Weiwei exhibition.
  • They also have a fascinating round up of 13 of Ai Weiwei’s most important works.
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