As an artist best known for his fierce criticism of the Chinese state, Ai Weiwei has reached dizzying celebrity status for his political dissidence and the frankly dystopian impingements on his human rights that have followed. The way in which his politics have become fused with his artistic persona means he is almost invariably referred to as both an artist and an activist in any one sentence. If there was ever any question that Ai Weiwei’s work could ever measure up to the swell of his name, rest assured he is worth his salt: the man is, among many things, a star, but first and foremost he is an artist.
The last time Ai Weiwei was in London for an exhibition of his work was back in 2010 when he installed millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Not only was that the last time he was in London, it was also the last time he was present for any of his some 100 exhibitions in the last five years. His politics have notoriously landed him in trouble with the Chinese authorities time and again, seeing him hospitalised at the hands of police brutality, detained in a secret prison, and placed under house arrest and surveillance, all of which culminated in 2011 with the confiscation of his passport and severe restrictions on his travel. Since then Ai Weiwei has helped curate a spate of international exhibitions remotely, rarely leaving his Beijing studio. His momentous show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London – the largest survey in the UK yet – marks the first time since Sunflower Seeds that he has been able to attend one of his own exhibitions.
The eponymous show bridges two decades of Ai Weiwei’s career, from the time he returned to China from the US in 1993 to present day, and explores his transformative use of materials, many mined from China’s luxuriant material culture. It is, above all, a sweeping testament to the way in which his ever-expanding creative output – which encompasses everything in between intricate ceramics and architecture, and ranges from photographs, videos, books, wallpaper and furniture, to sculptures, installations and performances – is inseparable from his campaign for human rights and justice in China.
Walking in, a dark, rippled work in reclaimed ironwood unfurls before you like carpet rolled out. Despite appearances, Bed is a most unusual map of China; a ridged, rectangular mass of timber whose contoured edges actually trace the country’s border. It certainly doesn’t look like a map, but it starts to if you imagine China’s outline has been laid flat on the floor.
Employing traditional methods of carpentry, Bed is made up of an untold number of sections of wood fitted together in a complex pattern of joining and dovetails, telling of the way in which craftsmanship and the matter of making are themselves integral to Ai’s work. As in many of his works in wood – the recycled woodland of bare trees in the RA’s courtyard for instance – the timber has been salvaged from some of Imperial China’s dismantled temples.
In the following gallery, vaguely surreal furniture works including Table with Two Legs on the Wall and a balancing act of wooden stools are similarly repurposed antiques. Proudly useless, they recall the influence of Marcel Duchamp and his ideas about found objects and the readymade on a younger Ai. But even where Ai Weiwei builds pieces around reworkings of Duchampian ideas and minimal art, everything is filtered through the storied lens of China. Later, a series of four one-metre-sided cubes fashioned respectively from compacted tea, carved ebony, crystal and huali wood again reiterate the artist’s interest in combining minimalist forms with Chinese craft.
Where traditionalism isn’t fetishised like this, it is irreverently overwritten or destroyed. In a provocative triptych of photographs from 1995, Ai is shown dropping a Han dynasty urn. In the first photograph he holds the urn up, in the second it’s mid-fall, and in the third it’s shattering on the ground. Nearby a cluster of Qing dynasty vases have been dipped in lurid paint, which drips down their sides. Dropping or painting over a 2000-year-old antiquity easily appears the work of an uncontrollable ego or barbaric impulses, but these works really hold the mirror up to the frustrated relationship between old and new in China.
In the first instance, Ai shows the gross mishandling of his country’s heritage in the plainest possible terms. The smashing of the urn – a deliberate provocation – speaks not only of contemporary China’s alienation from its past, but the active iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution, which encouraged the wilful destruction of historic buildings and antique objects. In the second – the painted vases – he questions how an antiquity is more valuable as a contemporary artwork than as an original.
Elsewhere, highlights include Straight, a monumental work literally built out of the wreckage from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake: over 150 tonnes of rebar taken from schools destroyed in the disaster and straightened and stacked, flanked by gridded lists of all 5,196 children who died. A nearby wall is built from the rubble of his Shanghai studio bulldozed by the government and shares a gallery with 3000 porcelain river crabs. The word for crab, hie xie, is a homonym for “harmonious,” which regularly appears in government propaganda and is used on the internet as slang for censorship.
Interestingly, both these works are intrinsically tied to the state adversity Ai has faced in recent years. A trial linked to the first led to the 81 day detention the artist has nightmarishly detailed in a set of six dioramas which show the plastic-wrapped cell where two guards stood over him at all times, silently watching him eat, sleep, shower and go to the toilet. The events out of which Souvenir from Shanghai is built had him placed under house arrest.
Full of subtleties, surprises and small shocks, Ai’s show requires you to take pause. There is more to be found beneath the surface of each and every work here, which like a series of moments, tend to have a snowballing effect. It stages a wonderful clash of cultures as the Royal Academy’s neoclassical interior plays host to Ai Weiwei’s remix of China’s material culture, drawing on his politics, personal experience and the social fabric of his country. There are also brilliant flashes of playfulness throughout. Whether sex toys carved from jade or wallpaper which turns a raised middle finger into a decorative pattern, the artist’s sense of humour is not to be underestimated.