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Focus on China: Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

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With Cameron and Xi Jinping clinking pint glasses over £30 billion pounds worth of deals agreed last Thursday, including the first nuclear plant to be built in the West since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy is ever relevant

Kate Middleton, the Queen and Jackie Chan were all smiles last week greeting the president of China. Meanwhile, the hordes were still traipsing through the lofty rooms of the Royal Academy where Ai Weiwei’s work screams about Chinese state corruption through a visual foghorn. Ai was detained in prison for 81 days without trial, during which he was guarded by two officers as he slept, ate, and defecated. His passport was confiscated and he was under house arrest for four years. When he came to the UK for the exhibition in July, he was initially given a 20-day visa for failing to declare his criminal convictions.

Talk of ‘human rights abuses’ in China was lathered on so thickly by the media last week that, I at least, started to zone out. This exhibition exposed not only human rights abused, but humans abused, and a human, specifically, Ai Weiwei.

The exhibition is laid out thematically. Ai’s commemoration of the Sichuan earthquake takes up a significant part, as do the Qing dynasty pieces and his time spent in jail. It is a large exhibition with many installations, but every piece refers to the same theme – the corruption of the Chinese regime. Ai’s muse is the communist state, and defines him as an artist and the exhibition as a whole.

‘Straight’ is a 12m x 6m long undulating structure made of rusty reinforcing rods. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai secretly collected two hundred tonnes of these rods which were used in the reinforcement of the ‘tofu-dreg’ buildings that crumpled without hesitation in the earthquake. His allegation was that these government buildings were of a deliberately shoddy quality for profit driven reasons. Had these buildings been properly constructed to a standard that could hold up in an area that sits right on a fault line, could 70,000 lives have been saved?

It’s a question that should make your stomach turn, and yet, the work is unemotional, with a control that is appropriate for 90 tonnes of steel. The undulation is contained within a perfect rectangle that takes up most of the room. The rods are collected, untwisted, straight. The balance between motion and stasis, fluidity and geometry is satisfying, like origami. This is a very neat, large-scale representation of a large-scale waste of human lives; not exactly dispassionate, but certainly manipulated and controlled.

Wanton wastefulness of the regime crops up over and again, and it is something that Ai embraces with the Qing dynasty pieces. He takes the scraps of Qing architecture (1644 – 1911) which has and is being bulldozed to make way for communist buildings, and turns them into unusable furniture. A desk bends up a wall, stools are suspended in a circle, a plain column is encased in a little table. In these sculptural constructions there are no nails or glue, everything is fixed by traditional joinery methods. Using these ancient Chinese techniques, Ai sprinkles the ashes of Chinese legacy and tradition on the grounds of a new regime that would have forgotten the old. 

Ai becomes complicit in the waste and destruction by dipping Neolithic vases into paint, making them kitsch, useless, even ugly. An enormous photograph of him dropping a Han Dynasty urn with a blank look on his face hangs on the wall in the same room. In doing so he is exposing the inauthenticity of modern Chinese culture, manifesting the complete cultural callousness of communism? Or is he anticipating the total wipe-out of a cultural heritage? All three and more.  

Ai’s architecture, discussed in a recent event at the RA entitled, Ai Weiwei and Architecture, is built in rebellion against this demolishing frenzy. Apart from The Birds’ Nest, the Olympic building that Ai said he regrets designing, his buildings are very strong, powerful, humane and ordinary. They are built using traditional techniques and local materials. They have a quiet and enduring look, with the same poise and control that characterises his art. 

At the same event, curator and critic Philip Tinari offered something of an antidote to the Ai Weiwei adoration. He recounted an anecdote about officials from MOMA coming to visit various seminal architectural sites in China, including the Bird’s nest and Ai’s studio. Ai installed surveillance cameras and turned them on the visitors, taking up-skirt shots from the shelves underground where the dipped pots were kept. ‘Lest we should see him always as a victim of a totalitarian leviathan,’ said Tinari, ‘there are certain tactics he employs that start to mirror the tactics of the state as they have been employed onto him.’ The phrase ‘collapse is creation,’ could describe the majority of his work, and Tinari pointed out, ‘this was also true for Mao.’

Ai Weiwei is on at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly until 13 December

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