How to turn politics into art - Ai Wei Wei

All around the world writers and artists are struggling with censorship in harsh political regimes. How so many of them manage to achieve creative work in these conditions always fills me with admiration.  The Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is one of these.

While I was in London for the Climate Change COP21 march, I managed to get into the Royal Academy to see his exhibition there. They're opening until midnight at weekends - I had an evening ticket and the RA was packed. I didn't know what to expect - some political work is more about the subject than the form - but I was knocked out by this exhibition from the moment I walked into the courtyard and into his forest of trees, bolted together from pieces of wood collected in the mountains of China. There is both spiritual and political significance behind these objects.

The curator of the exhibition comments that:
'When I was in Beijing for my first meeting with Ai Weiwei I went, as most people do, to visit the Forbidden City. I was astonished to see people taking photographs of themselves next to a dead tree in the Imperial Garden at the far north of the complex, adjacent to the Hall of Imperial Peace. In China, trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth, the realm between heaven and the underworld. This particular long-dead tree clearly held particular significance, perhaps as an indicator of the venerable age of the temple, linking the past to the present. When I saw this, it made me immediately think of Ai’s Tree series that he started in 2009.'

Ai Wei Wei's materials may be political, but it is almost always the form that is the most important thing about his work.  The basic material of sculpture is often dictated by what artists can easily obtain, and the first things in the exhibition are objects made from domestic furniture.  But in the first big room there's a wonderful section from AWW's  relief map of China, 'Bed' made from pieces of ironwood salvaged from the thousands of Buddhist temples demolished across the country by Chairman Mao. Both the ripple effect and the cross-section profile are fascinating.

Ai Wei Wei's father was a poet who was banished by Mao, with his family, to a work camp for 're-education'.  He spent twenty years there and that is the context of AWW's upbringing.  Not surprising that he grew up with a burning political conscience. Corruption - both political and commercial  - is one of his targets.  In the massive earthquake of 2008 in Sichuan, many of the dead were school children and students, because building regulations (particularly steel reinforcing) had not been met in public buildings due to corrupt officials and companies.  Ai Wei Wei salvaged steel reinforcing rods from the schools and colleges - one for each student killed - hammered them out and used them to make a sculpture called 'Straight'. It is a river of metal - different from every viewing point.

The students' names are exhibited on the wall beside it.

Chinese authorities have not approved Ai Wei Wei's work any more than their predecessors approved his father's. He has been arrested, imprisoned, held under house arrest, forbidden to leave the country, accused of tax evasion, despite his increasing world wide fame.  But this has not stopped him. When his studio was bulldozed by the government, he used the rubble to create a sculpture.  This was one I really liked.

He was forbidden to talk about his time in prison, so instead he created 'boxes', dioramas with an aperture that you can peer into, and inside is a room with sculpted figures showing some of the things that happened to him.  I was fascinated by the fact that the furniture in his cell was wrapped in plastic padding to prevent it being used as a weapon or as an object of self-harm.  The walls of the cell are padded, presumably for the same reason.

I also loved his painted ceramic pots, arranged in a colourful group.  Though even here, politics plays a part.  Why, he asks, should old ceramics from a previous age be more valuable than the work of potters creating new pots now?

Other 'fun' sculptures play with perspective, like this resin cube

and I liked these Chinese puzzles.

But the centre piece, hung under the huge glass dome of the RA, is his chandelier made out of bicycle wheels and frames.  Bicycles are very sculptural objects and Ai Wei Wei has welded them together and strung them with crystal and lights to create something very beautiful.


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