Long before it was widely proclaimed by critics as the show of the season the RA’s Ai Weiwei exhibition has had a buzz of anticipation and excitement around it, with anticipation building for several months. Thus it was with some degree of reservation that I visited the show last week, wondering if one exhibition and one artist could possibly deliver after so much suspense, especially when, in real terms, I knew so little about him or his work.
Ai Weiwei was catapulted into global fame after his 2011 arrest and secret detention by Chinese authorities – long a opponent of government corruption at the highest levels and using conceptual art as a visual means of criticism, it is his position as political dissident, and not so much as artist, that he is known for here in the West. So when I entered the first room of the exhibition and was confronted by his work Bed, he was as much an enigma as ever. The undulating layers of reclaimed wood, polished to a seductive red shine, captivated me without giving me the slightest understanding of how they represented a map of China, as the text on the wall informed me they did. It was not until I was squatting on the ground alongside it that I could see the jagged contours that make up its edges, outlining the geography of China’s borders, mimicking mountain and coastline.
I began to get the feeling that nothing was simple in Ai’s work – it wasn’t enough to only look once. I moved into the next room, which explores Ai’s ‘furniture’ works. Grapes, a 1993 work of reclaimed wooden stool reconfigured as a cartwheeling round of stubby legs is an anamorphic expression of pure joy; nearby Kipple, a block formed by bits of reclaimed wood from temples, homes etc, is like an old-fashioned wooden puzzle; through salvage and reassembly, Ai compacts traditional Chinese lifestyle, design and identity, which is being lost in the face of growing Westernisation.
The RA’s largest and most impressive gallery houses what is possibly Ai’s most powerful work, and here I felt comprehension dawning on me: Straight, a rolling sea of metal rebars used in the construction of a school in Szechaun, watched over on the walls by the names of 5000 Chinese schoolchildren who would lose their lives in 2008 when an earthquake hit the province, and the substandard rebars buckled, collapsing the building. The immense scale of the work, the sobriety of the seemingly endless list of young lives lost at the hands of a corrupt and uncaring construction industry, was genuinely spine-tingling; accompanying video footage shows how Ai and his team painstakingly tracked down and salvaged over 200 tonnes of twisted snaking rebars from the rubble, often at personal risk, and had them painstakingly re-straightened over several years to their original state. There’s something simultaneously deadly and fragile about the rusty orange bars, shorn roughly at each end. It is with works such as these, in which he fearlessly exposes corruption and commemorates the Chinese people, that we see Ai’s true power and impact as an artist.
There are other gems here, amongst some rather more obvious pieces such as the painted Quing dynasty pots. Everyday objects and scenes cast in marble become cold and unfamiliar, such as the gas mask set on a marble plinth, like a death monument or effigy. Another marble piece, Cao, consists of a pram on a grass lawn: it’s oddly chilling and unnerving to see plant life, usually so pliable, and an object which should hold the essence of life, cast in lifeless stone. Similarly discomforting are the half life-size scenes of his detention, held in huge boxes which can only be viewed through peepholes in the doors and through the ceiling, casting the viewer as guilty voyeur, making us implicit in his secret imprisonment and humiliation. The models of Ai going through the motions of everyday life (eating, shitting, sleeping, washing) being constantly watched by his guards have that creepy quality of old mannequins in long forgotten rural museums.
The question I want to ask of all of this is: is it art? In the past few years I’ve come to realise that the definition of art is fluid and personal; the word itself means something different to every individual. To me, art is a visual means of conveying some aspect of life, big or small, everyday or extraordinary; it’s an object which resonates deeply on some level of my subconscious when I gaze upon it. It should also inspire some degree of aesthetic appreciation, or satisfaction. And perhaps that’s why for me, conceptual art is so hit-and-miss. Sometimes we look at it and think, I just don’t get it. But at its best (and much of the best is in this exhibition) it can make a statement so powerful, so loud, that it opens up a whole new way of thinking, seeing and knowing the world we live in.
And what of the artist himself? Conventional notions of the ‘artist’ figure call to mind a single entity, solitary, perhaps a bit tortured, working alone against the world. Ai subverts all these ideas though; almost none of the works we see on show were actually crafted by his own hands; he works with a dedicated team of craftsmen who realise his ideas for him. Considering his project to tell the truth, to uncover lies and maintain China’s identity against the lure of commercialism and mass manufacturing, he’s giving the few skilled craftsmen left a voice; this new collaborative way of making art could revolutionise the 21st century.
The exhibition finishes in a hexagonal room, from which hangs a spectacular Bicycle Chandelier, made specifically for that site – thousands of glittering crystals drop like a shaft of sparkling light through the centre of the room, luring you into to stand under it. It’s only once you’re there, standing underneath and looking up, that you realise the frame is composed of a mass of intersecting bicycles, creating an intricate pattern that looks almost infinite. The bicycle is hugely significant in Ai Weiwei’s work – symbolic of the Chinese spirit and identity. In Ai’s work, it’s not the subject or the object which matters (in this case a decorative/functional object) but the materials it’s made from. He has breathed China into every single work in the exhibition, and this final glorious vision is a monument to the everyman Chinese, pure and simple.