Friday, 25 September 2015

Ai Weiwei

A heart-melting, thought-provoking show about politics, priceless pots and power-crazed communists

Written by Sam Taylor
Sam-Taylor-colour-176In 1958, shortly after his first birthday, Ai Weiwei’s family was exiled to a labour camp on the borders of Mongolia by Chairman Mao. Their crime? His father, Ai Qing, was a poet. They lived in a hole in the ground and his father cleaned the loos, somehow managing to keep their little unit alive until Mao died in 1976, allowing them to return to Beijing.

Ai was, as he would admit, one of the lucky ones: Mao was responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million people. A number that seems hard even to write down, let alone comprehend. In this exhibition of large-scale, mega-narrative pieces, it is impossible not to be moved by his commitment to highlighting the political and cultural conditions in China. The fundamental questions posed by his art are: Why? The answers are complex. ‘The activism and the art are one,’ he once explained.

All the materials he uses contain a historical capital of their own. The lumps of wood salvaged from the temples destroyed by Mao, for instance. Straight is an installation formed from the 90 tonnes of corrupted metal rods salvaged from the ruins of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – a shaming, shoddy building disaster that killed 5,000 schoolchildren. Each of their little names painted in neat rows on the gallery walls. The tidalwave- shaped installation takes three weeks to assemble and is as worthy as any other commemorative memorial.

In 2011, Ai was imprisoned for 81 days without charge by the Chinese authorities, ostensibly for avoiding tax, but in reality for being a thorn in the side of The Party elite. His punishment was to have two guards stand a foot away from him at all times in a series of tiny windowless cells. When he moved, they moved. The result is here: six half-sized recreations of the cells, viewing windows set in the top, allowing us to look down on him and his captors. It’s attention-grabbing and it works. Like the silent, subtitled video that tells in real time the story of the building and then destruction by the Chinese government of his studio in Shanghai. Some visitors might think his own coating in industrial paint of a collection of Han dynasty pots equally destructive, but it is ultimately a comment on Mao’s attempts to redraw China’s past. Posh pots, like poets, were banned.

Until 13 December at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1: 020-7300 8000, www.royalacademy.org.uk



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