The Royal Academy of Arts presents a landmark exhibition of the Honorary Royal Academician, Ai Weiwei. Although Ai is one of China’s leading contemporary artists, his work has not been seen extensively in Britain and the Royal Academy presents the first major institutional survey of his artistic output.
The exhibition includes significant works from 1993 onwards, the date that marks Ai Weiwei‘s return to China following more than a decade living in New York. Ai Weiwei has created new, sitespecific installations and interventions throughout the Royal Academy’s spaces. On his return to China in 1993, Ai began to work in a direction that was both embedded in Chinese culture and reflected the exposure he had had to Western art during his twelve year sojourn in the US. Citing Duchamp as ‘the most, if not the only, influential figure’ in his art practice, Ai continues to engage with creative tensions between complex art histories, conceiving works with multiple readings in the process. To this end he employs traditional materials and interventions with historic objects throughout his work from Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BCE) to Qing dynasty (1644-1911) architectural components and furniture. By creating new objects from old, Ai challenges conventions of value and authenticity in modern-day China.
These artworks include Table and Pillar, 2002, from his Furniture series, and Coloured Vases, 2015. Ai works in a variety of different contexts, scales and media. He transforms materials to convey his ideas, whether in wood, porcelain, marble or jade, testing the skills of the craftsmen working to his brief in the process. Some pieces take months to create and pass through lengthy periods of experimentation, pushing the boundaries of the formal qualities of a material. Sculptures such as Surveillance Camera, 2010 and Video Camera, 2010, both masterpieces in craftsmanship, monumentalise the technology used to monitor, simultaneously rendering it useless and absurd. A new artwork, Remains, 2015, is also included in the exhibition. Fabricated in porcelain, the work replicates in meticulous detail a group of bones that were recently excavated at a site of a labour camp that operated under Chairman Mao in the 1950s.
One of the key installations within the exhibition is Straight, 2008-12, part of the body of work related to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Fabricated from ninety tonnes of bent and twisted rebar (the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings), collected by the artist and straightened by hand, it is a sober monument to the victims of the earthquake. The subject of destruction, whether by demolition or as a consequence of natural disasters is one of a number of recurring themes and motifs that Ai returns to within his body of work.
Ai has created site specific sculptural installations for the Royal Academy’s spaces, including his monumental Tree displayed in the Annenberg Courtyard, consisting of eight individual trees, each measuring around seven metres tall. It is the largest installation of this work to date and to enable the work to be displayed, the Royal Academy launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, where £123,577 was raised; the largest amount ever raised for a European art project on Kickstarter. Ai has also created a new work for the Wohl Central Hall, featuring a chandelier made of Forever bicycles, a recurring subject in his work. Ai first began working with chandeliers in 2002 and this is the first time Ai has combined the two ideas, creating a chandelier from bicycles.