Ai Weiwei’s work is not unusual in drawing upon the artist’s own life experience for inspiration, but there is none of the solipsism of Tracey Emin’s Bed in his art. Ai Weiwei’s installations, sculptures and videos – which I saw last week in his powerful, moving and deeply serious exhibition currently at the Royal Academy – affirm his unwavering commitment to human rights and freedom of expression.
Everything is art. Everything is politics.
Everything in this great show moves inexorably towards the installation encountered in one of the final rooms: S.A.C.R.E.D.
The work I saw most recently in these large galleries at the RA were the monumental artworks of Anselm Keifer. If anything has the power and seriousness to follow Kiefer it’s the artworks of Ai Weiwei, magnificent in their fearlessness, which now occupy these spaces.
Two in particular – S.A.C.R.E.D. and Straight -ought not to be missed by anyone genuinely interested in how contemporary art can probe the relationship between power, human rights and cultural history.
Those works should be prescribed viewing for members of the Conservative government whose supine attitude to the authoritarian regime in China is demonstrated in trade deals, a nuclear power agreement, and by the recent state visit to Britain by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao.
For let’s not forget that our government initially denied this brave and unrelenting critic of China’s authoritarian regime a visa to enter Britain for his exhibition – until a public outcry forced them to reverse their decision.
The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.
The background to S.A.C.R.E.D. is this. On Sunday 3 April 2011, Ai was arrested at Beijing airport as he prepared to travel to Taipei. He was illegally detained at a secret location for 81 days. For 24 hours a day, two guards stood silently watching him from only 80 cm away, even in the shower and toilet. Initially handcuffed, he was forbidden to communicate with anyone, including his guards. The only source of ventilation for his windowless room was a small wall fan.
While in detention, Ai memorised every detail of his cell, whose walls and every piece of whose furniture were wrapped in plastic. On his release on 22 June 2011, he was forbidden to discuss his incarceration, placed on parole for twelve months, and his passport was withheld.
Despite these restrictions, Ai re-created his cell in six models, all half actual size at 5 feet by 12 feet, and populated them with fibreglass figures of himself engaged in different activities under the watchful eyes of his guards. The title of the work – S.A.C.R.E.D. – stands for the six scenes in his daily routine: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy (Sleep), and Doubt.
The dioramas of S.A.C.R.E.D. reveal the degrading nature of Ai’s detention: a denial of liberty and privacy designed to break his spirit and discourage him from further challenges to the Chinese authorities. Entering the spacious gallery at the Royal Academy, you are confronted with six large iron boxes, each unit having small apertures similar to those found on a prison cell door – one on the side and one on the top, reached by climbing a small set of steps – through which we can peer into the cell where Ai has positioned models of himself with his guards. Each unit documents in precise detail scenes from his captivity, emphasising the surveillance he was under during all times, whether eating, showering, defecating, being interrogated, or sleeping.
On the day of his arrest, in a statement to the authorities, Ai alluded to the experience of his father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, who was exiled with his wife and the young Ai by Mao’s regime in the late 1950s:
Eighty-some years ago my father was accused of the same crime you accuse me of today, of ‘subversion of the State’. So in China, even after 80 years we are still fighting for the same thing: freedom of expression.
Stepping up to look through the slit on top of the box, we see lifelike dioramas of Ai Weiwei as a political prisoner inside a padded prison cell, always under double guard. Every detail, each little thing is exactly how it was in the prison where he was detained.
I memorized every crack in the ceiling, every mark on the wall. I’m an artist and architect, so I have a good memory for these things.
Reviewing S.A.C.R.E.D. for the Guardian when it was displayed at the Venice Biennial in 2013, Charlotte Higgins wrote:
The uncanny hyperreality of the installation speaks of the fact that, according to the project’s curator, Maurizio Bortolotti, ‘the experience made him fix all the details like a nightmare’. For 81 days he had nothing to do (aside from his periods being questioned) but memorise the minutest details of the tiny, featureless room in which he was kept. The outside of the metal boxes is entirely blank – Ai was brought there hooded. The only detail of the cell’s exterior he observed was on his release, when he saw the number on the door: 1135.
Ai was unable to attend the Venice show because the Chinese authorities had confiscated his passport for alleged ‘tax evasion’ after releasing him from his 81 day detention. His mother Gao Ying, in her early eighties, represented Ai and was, as the Independent reported, visibly upset as she observed her son’s new installation, which she had never seen before. The reporter, Zoe Pilger continued:
These six dioramas – scaled-down scenes that recreate the exact interior of his cell – show with grace and anger the daily humiliations of Weiwei’s life as a political prisoner.
The artist has stated that his experience still gives him nightmares. The works were made over a year and a half as a way of overcoming the trauma of incarceration. Including doll-like sculptures of the artist himself and the green uniformed prison guards who watched over him, they are exquisitely rendered yet not life-like enough to appear real. Weiwei is pointedly reminding the viewer that what he or she is seeing is a fake. This too is a political statement – Weiwei is in the business of busting illusions and exploding myths.
Each diorama is housed in a large two and half ton iron box. The viewer must step on a block and peer inside in order to look at the scenes. This creates a sense of voyeurism – the viewer is made complicit in the guards’ surveillance of Weiwei. To look at these works is to become a peeping tom, a pseudo-spy…
The worst tragedy is disrespect for life.
Back at the beginning of the exhibition, in the first large gallery, is the artwork which led to Ai’s detention.
At 2.28 pm on 12 May 2008, a powerful earthquake ripped through Sichuan province in south-west China causing widespread damage and significant loss of life. Around twenty schools collapsed, killing more than five thousand children.
Outraged by the devastation, Ai Weiwei spoke out on social media, denouncing the shoddy construction practices and corruption that had led to the deaths. In spite of sustained harassment from the police, Ai and a number of others established a citizens’ investigation with the aim of recording the names of all the victims of the collapsed schools, information which the authorities refused to divulge.
On this day, beauty has perished. Have you not noticed the absence of so many laughing voices?
– Ai Weiwei, ‘Silent Holiday’, blog post, 1 June 2008
It was this activism which angered the Chinese authorities, and led to Ai being arrested for alleged tax evasion and held in solitary detention for 81 days – the experience documented in S.A.C.R.E.D.
Ai created a number of works, including several films, which examined the devastation that resulted from the earthquake, and its impact on the families of the victims. At the Royal Academy we see three examples of this work – the monumental Straight consisting of reconstituted steel bars from the buildings that collapsed in the earthquake, a film about the project, and along the two main walls of the gallery huge prints that record all the names of the earthquake victims found by the Citizens’ Investigation. Taken together, the work is powerful and deeply moving.
Straight consists of 200 tonnes of steel bars carefully arranged on the floor of the gallery. Sourced from the ruins of the school buildings destroyed in the earthquake, Ai employed craftsmen to clean and straighten each piece of twisted steel, restoring them to their original condition.
Viewed from the side, the way in which Ai has arranged the metal bars is suggestive of a fissure ripped through the landscape by the earthquake, or of the pattern of a recording on the Richter scale. Viewed from either end, the undulating surface of the installation suggests the force of the quake sending ripples through the earth’s surface.
Straight is both a memorial and a statement of political activism. The steel bars arranged on the floor of the gallery are a reminder of the substandard construction methods used to build state schools. It was well-known in China that public buildings were notorious for being poorly constructed and being made from sub-standard materials commonly referred to as tofu-dreg – porous and flimsy like the remnants from making bean curd.
Poor building materials and lax regulations were the cause of the high number of fatalities among children who were in shoddily-built school buildings when the earthquake struck. Corrupt local officials had compromised on building materials for personal gain.
Following the earthquake Ai clandestinely purchased bent and twisted rebar – the steel reinforcing bars used in the construction of concrete structures – that had been earmarked for recycling. He had 200 tonnes of this scrap metal transported to his studio in Beijing, where it was painstakingly straightened by hand and returned to its original pre-construction and pre-earthquake state.
Ai’s political engagement and the success of the investigation to discover the names of the dead came at a high price. Not only were his volunteers arrested by local police, but the authorities also permanently shut down the artist’s blog, and installed the first of several security cameras opposite the front door of his Beijing home and studio.
Then, on 12 August 2009, police broke into his Chengdu hotel room at 3am (he had been in Chengdu to attend the trial of civil rights activist Tan Zuoren) and beat him so badly that a month later, after intense and frequent headaches, he was rushed to hospital in Munich with a cerebral haemorrhage. He recorded and disseminated evidence of both the beating and his hospitalisation online.
A common thread in Ai’s recent work has been the way in which he recycles carefully selected pre-used materials to probe questions of power and human rights, or issues concerning Chinese history and culture in the context of modernisation in China. The bent steel bars in Straight, sourced from the rubble of the earthquake, reflect the same approach as Ai’s use of wood from dismantled Qing dynasty temples or Neolithic urns in other recent work.
Take, for example, Souvenir from Shanghai, encountered earl in the RA exhibition. This is an autobiographical work which recycles materials from destroyed buildings in order to create an artistic statement that questions and mocks political actions. Here’s the story behind it.
In 1999 Ai built a studio-house of his own design in a village on the outskirts of Beijing. Soon, more artists and commercial galleries moved in, turning what had once been a farming village into a successful art colony. In 2008 the municipal authorities in Shanghai, keen to replicate its success, invited Ai to build a studio in the city, at their cost.
So Ai designed and arranged the construction of a new studio, which was completed in October 2010. But this was just as Ai and the Citizens’ Investigation Committee were piling on the pressure after the Sichuan earthquake. The federal authorities countermanded the Shanghai agreement and ordered the building to be demolished on the pretext that Ai had not gained the requisite planning permission.
The studio was razed to the ground on 11 January 2011. Despite the authorities’ attempts to prevent Ai accessing the site during the demolition, he managed to procure some of the original building materials to make Souvenir from Shanghai.
In Souvenir from Shanghai, Ai uses concrete and brick from the demolished studio, together with a Qing dynasty rosewood bed frame with beautiful carved detailing. The brick and concrete rubble is arranged in a neat cube with pieces from the antique bed frame providing metaphorical bookends.
Just before the demolition had been due to take place, on the internet Ai invited supporters to attend a party during which they would feast on river crabs to commemorate both the completion of the new building and its imminent demolition. The Chinese word for river crabs, HeXie, is a homonym for ‘harmonious’, a word much used in government propaganda, but which had become internet slang for censorship. Although Ai was under house arrest and prevented from being at the party in person, around 800 guests attended.
Which explains the background to He Xie, a pile of porcelain crabs crafted by artisans that are piled up in one corner of the gallery at the RA. In this work, Ai has transformed the fleeting protest of the river crab feast into a permanent statement of dissent, the rejecting the regime’s concept of ‘a harmonious society’ as simply a smokescreen for attempts to suppress freedom of expression.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Ai was born in Beijing in 1957; his mother was Gao Ying, a writer, and his father was Ai Qing, a famous poet who sent into exile when Ai was one year old. The family remained in exile for twenty years, and Ai Qing, once the country’s pre-eminent literary intellectual, could no longer publish his poetry. He was sentenced to hard labour, and forced to clean the village’s fifteen communal toilets daily for several years during China’s Cultural Revolution.
The young Ai Weiwei, living with his family in a hole in the ground covered by brushwood, learned at an early age to make furniture, bricks and clothes. Recalling his childhood, Ai recalls that the ‘living conditions were extremely harsh, and education was almost non-existent.’ After Mao’s death in 1976, the family gained permission to return to Beijing, and Ai Qing was rehabilitated and regained his honour. Two years later, Weiwei entered Beijing Film Academy, where he studied animation.
In 1981, Ai Weiwei settled in New York, searching abroad for the artistic freedom that his homeland denied him. Ai remained in New York for eleven years and immersed himself in contemporary art, particularly the work of Marcel Duchamp
who inspired Hanging Man the best known work of Ai’s New York period, and one that signalled future work in which he would – like Duchamp – appropriate and redefine the meaning of everyday objects.
‘I think Duchamp is the most, if not the only, influential figure in my so-called art practice.’
– Ai Weiwei to Tim Marlow, 2015
In 1993, news from China that his father was ill prompted Ai to return to Beijing. During the 1990s he published three influential books, the last of which included three photographs of what many regard as Ai’s most provocative performance: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.
The three photographs that comprise Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn catch Ai
at his mother’s house at the moment of destruction. In all three images, Ai confronts the viewer with the same neutral expression and stance, his
gaze never wavering. The final photograph shows Ai, his hands splayed, with a now-shattered urn at his feet.
It was an act that, in the words of the RA curators:
Simultaneously challenged tradition, heritage and the urn’s implicit values; questioned the nature of cultural and financial worth; evoked the wreckage of historic buildings and antiques wrought by the Cultural Revolution; and transformed a precious object into a new form of artwork.
There were expressions of horror, both in China and abroad, Ai’s performance seen as an act of desecration. However, Ai recalled that ‘Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one’. He continued to produce work that raised questions about the way in which priceless antiquities were being destroyed in China’s rush to modernise.
After his return to Beijing, Ai became absorbed in China’s cultural heritage, especially Chinese art from the Neolithic to the 17th century Qing dynasty. He visited antique markets daily and began to acquire objects such as 2,000-year old urns from the Han dynasty.
Coca Cola Vase, a Han Dynasty vase overpainted with the Coca Cola logo using industrial paint, is a blend of tradition and modernity, an ancient artwork used as a billboard to advertise a modern multinational product. Like Andy Warhol, who Ai rubbed shoulders with during his time in New York, he refers to everyday objects to comment on consumerism in the modern world. The work derives its meaning not simply from the Coca Cola logo, but from its relationship with the Han dynasty pot. In his juxtaposition of the old and the new, Ai challenges us to consider the nature of modern China’s relationship with its past: is it tension, unity – or both – that connects the past and the present.
In Coloured Vases, a 2015 version of a work he has repeated several times, Ai
has dipped 12 Han Dynasty and four Neolithic vases into buckets of industrial paint and then let them drip dry. His defacement of these precious pots can be interpreted as part of the artist’s larger critique of the Chinese state’s cultural and historical vandalism. By covering the surfaces with new paint, Ai suggests that what is underneath – like history itself – is ‘no longer visible, but is still there.’
He is often asked if the vases were genuine, or fakes – suggesting another reading of these works. The fundamental irony is that they slyly play on the question of authenticity, an aspect which features prominently in today’s thriving market for ancient Chinese art.
A sceptical view of Ai Weiwei’s treatment of his collection of Han vases was expressed in the Guardian by Jonathan Jones in 2014:
What does his attack on Han art mean? I must admit I’m confused. I want to see it as a devastating satire on the modern world’s alienation from the past. Ever since the Chinese Revolution began in the early 20th century, political and economic ruptures have cut off China in particular from its ancient culture. Is Ai Weiwei parodying that? Or is he mocking western art-lovers who think all Chinese art is ancient (as they may have, back in 1995)?
Ai Weiwei certainly does capture the industrial world’s disconnection from making, our loss of crafts and even of basic respect for them. But he also embodies these cynical attitudes as he smashes that lovely old vase. He seems to invite further violence to art – even his own.
Apart from ancient pots, Ai’s interest in Chinese historical craftsmanship led him to begin buying pillars and beams from 17th century Qing dynasty temples that were being demolished – to use as Duchamp-style readymades in a series of Furniture works. Table and Pillar, 2002, is the work that he considers to be the most important of this group. This surreal work – in which a 15 foot wooden pillar, partially painted red, is embedded in a scratched wooden table – greets you right at the start of the RA exhibition.
Ai bought its component pieces – originally from a southern China temple – from a furniture dealer at a high price, as the wood was so valuable it was sold by weight. As with all the works in this series, what interested Ai was not the monetary value of the wood, but how he might reconstitute it in order to draw attention to China’s history of craftsmanship.
Ai’s assistants employed the same techniques in realising the work as did their Qing dynasty predecessors. After stripping back the original table, they painstakingly reassembled it using no nails or adhesives, expending a
tremendous amount of effort in creating what is now a ‘useless’ object stripped
of its original meanings and context.
‘You know an old temple was beautiful and beautifully built. We could once all believe and hope in it. But once it has been destroyed, it’s nothing. It becomes
another artist’s material to build something completely contradictory to what it was before.’
– Ai Weiwei, 2009
For another really useless object you need look no further than the corner of the same room where Table with Two Legs on the Wall is situated. This was one of the first works in the Furniture series that Ai made after his return to China in 1993. Ai utilizes the cabinetmakers’ skills (again, no nails or adhesives) to produce an object that is as true as possible to the Ming and Qing Dynasty originals – but which completely subverts the objects’ original purpose to render them useless.
Yet another useless object is Grapes, made with 27 Qing Dynasty stools, which defies gravity with its acrobatic composition and minimal contact with the ground.
Bed, from 2004, is another piece which employs the same traditional craft skills. Like most of Ai’s works in wood, Bed was fashioned by traditional craftsmen, and contains numerous hidden joints and perfectly planed abutments between its sections. It’s also one of many pieces he has made that reveal a map of China.
In Imperial China, the hardwood tieli (commonly known as iron wood for its hardness and durability) was favoured for the construction of timber-framed buildings and furniture. Bed has been constructed from reclaimed tieli timbers, purchased by Ai. The timbers came from temples of the Qing Dynasty that were being dismantled to make way for the rapid development and expansion of the big cities.
In this way, Ai has promoted traditional methods of carpentry that were rapidly dying out in a country driven by technological change and mass production. The carpenters’ skill – using hidden mortise-and-tenon joints without recourse to nails, screws or glue – has produced a three-dimensional map of China, a country in which – in common with most modern industrial economies – such skills are virtually redundant.
In China, as elsewhere, marble is symbolic of wealth and power. It has historic associations with both Imperial and Communist China. Some years ago, Ai
purchased an interest in the Dashiwo quarry in Fangshan where white marble has been quarried for hundreds of years. Marble from Dashiwo was used in the construction of the Forbidden City between 1406 and 1420 and, more recently, in the creation of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square following his death in 1976.
That’s the context for a roomful of strange things – everyday objects sculpted manually in marble, pushing to the limits a brittle material’s tolerance and the skill of his stonemasons. It’s as if, in choosing to use a material associated with China’s imperial past and the immortalisation of Mao Zedong, Ai has turned household objects such as a pushchair and a video recorder – into domestic monuments that commemorate moments in his life as well as reflecting on Chinese society.
The pushchair stands on a marble lawn made up of 770 pieces of closely-clipped grass carved from marble. The installation is called Cao, and the reference is to the district of Caochangdi on the outskirts of Beijing where Ai was invited to build a studio in 1999. Caochangdi means ‘grass field’, and during the Qing Dynasty, this grass field was used to feed the emperors’ horses. Additionally, in Chinese poetry and literature, cao, or grass, is a term often used to refer to the common people, the masses.
So there is rich irony here. Ai moved to the village just as the old agricultural way of life was ending with farmers leasing land to companies and individuals. Now he has created a monument of this common thing, grass, grown here centuries ago for emperors who commissioned objects to be made from priceless marble. Now Ai’s grass and pushchair are made of marble sourced from the Fangshan imperial quarries.
But there is more: across the room, on a plinth, stands a marble surveillance camera. It’s a copy of the twenty cameras placed around his studio in Caochangdi to monitor every movement made by Ai, a commentary on the authoritarian state in which Ai lives.
In another room Ai has produced a group of exquisite showcases mimicking those in up-market shops in which desirable objects of high value are displayed. But he has subverted our expectations. Though made out of precious materials, employing great skills of craftsmanship, these works refer to human-rights abuses, lack of freedom of speech and state censorship.
Here is a pair of handcuffs carved from a single piece of Jade, a reference to Ai’s secret detention in 2011. And here, a set of porcelain pieces, each decorated with the slogan ‘Free Speech’, which together form a map of China. They are based on traditional pendants that would bear a family’s name and serve as good-luck charms for the wearer. But here, ‘Free Speech’ is the ‘family name’ for the entire country. It’s a brilliant piece of art that embodies everything Weiwei stands for: the right to free speech, for everyone.
In a vitrine nearby is a simple but very effective statement: two editions of the popular title The Art Book are displayed side by side. In the Chinese edition Ai Weiwei is replaced by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Agostino di Duccio: a small but significant example of state censorship.
Following Ai’s release from detention in 2011 (documented in S.A.C.R.E.D), his company Fake Design Ltd was charged with tax evasion, fined nearly £1.5 million and given just 15 days to pay. The public offered their unsolicited support by giving him money towards settling the tax demand, some throwing donations over the wall of his studio compound, others contributing online.
Ai responded with IOU, a work in which he wrote promissory notes to each of the 30,000 donors. These notes were in turn scanned and turned into wallpaper. The wallpaper design, featuring a raised middle finger arranged in a decorative geometric pattern, references another work by Ai: Study of Perspective, a series of photographs Ai has taken of himself raising his middle finger – the internationally recognised gesture of contempt – at buildings and monuments such as the White House and Tiananmen Square.
Another wallpaper exhibit, Golden Age, is decorated with the Twitter logo, a pair of handcuffs and a surveillance camera, all presented in gold, referencing Ai’s interest in social media and the curtailment of his personal freedom by the authorities.
Outside, in the Royal Academy courtyard, Ai has placed two more works. Tree is constructed from sections of dead trees collected on the mountains of southern China, and then pieced together over several months in Ai’s studio in Beijing to create eight ‘complete’ trees.
Held together by hidden mortise and tenon joins and large industrial bolts, the trees look natural from a distance, but artificial close up. The artificial constructions of Tree have been interpreted as a commentary on the modern Chinese nation, where ethnically diverse peoples have been brought together to form ‘One China’ in a state-sponsored policy aimed at promoting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Amidst the grove of artificial trees Ai has placed a marble couch in a reference to the Ming Dynasty vogue for fashioning everyday objects from luxury materials. The result was items that no practical use but which emphasised the wealth of the rulers of Imperial China.
Standing in the courtyard, I wondered whether any member of the Conservative government had visited this exhibition, so magnificent in its fearlessness. Our leaders’ supine attitude to the authoritarian regime in China (whose money speaks louder than justice) was epitomised by their initial denial of the artist and human rights activist a visa to enter Britain for the exhibition – until a public outcry forced them to reverse their decision.
Ai Weiwei’s name remains unspoken in the Chinese media, though he has had
solo shows open in Beijing recently. Plain-clothes police attended each show, and the Global Times, a newspaper that propagates official state views, advised Ai to moderate the relationship between art and politics in his work.
But Ai, stands firm in his belief that ‘you have to use your own experience to tell a story’, arguing that it is not possible to separate art and politics in China. He insists that he will continue his advocacy of human rights through his art:
The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.
On a Twitter Q&A organised by the Royal Academy in September 2015 he asserted:
Be involved. Speak your mind clearly. Let your voice be heard.
I agree with another important Chinese dissident, the exiled author Ma Jian, who wrote of Ai Weiwei on a Royal Academy blog post: ‘I admire his courage, integrity, determination and social conscience.’
- There’s a great series of videos relating to the Ai weiwei exhibition of the RA’s YouTube channel here. They include a conversation – in 4 parts – between Tim Marlow and Ai Weiwei recorded at his Beijing studio, and a recording of ‘An Evening with Ai Weiwei, streamed live in September this year.
- Ma Jian on Ai Weiwei and freedom of expression in China (RA blog)
- Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’ (2014)
- Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy (2012)
- Ai Weiwei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail (2011)
- Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern (2010)
- Ai Weiwei: ‘I have to speak for people who are afraid’ (2010)
- The Biennial’s Web of Light (2008)
- ‘The Dark Road’: Ma Jian’s journey into the terrible heart of the Chinese economic miracle (2014)