Nothing says new perspective like a table with two legs up on a wall! Before going to the Ai Weiwei show at the Royal Academy, I hadn’t seen any of his pieces in person. It’s a powerful show which will stay with you long after the visit. It is curated beautifully, with an audio-visual guide adding depth to the experience, and the perfect size for spending about two hours immersed in it.
Ai has produced many ‘useless objects’ which refer to items which have no other purpose apart from showing off wealth. This series is also a nod to Duchamp’s found objects and Dadaism. The three-legged Ming table is one such useless object. This is not the only piece in which Ai uses traditional craftsmanship on antique items to change their form into unexpected configurations. In Fragments from 2005, salvaged temple beams and furniture all joined immaculately together form a large room-sized map of China – if seen from above the installation. As a visitor you can move freely inside and outside the map of the country, as many people in China cannot do.
The question of freedom is a powerful one for Ai and in fact he is a political activist through his art. In 2011 he was detained for nearly three months, held in a tiny room with lights constantly on and two guards in close proximity to him at all times. Only in July of this year did he receive his passport back.
For me, Straight (2008-2012) was the most powerful piece of the show. In one large room is a massive installation of thousands of rebars, salvaged from the mangled ruins of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and each straightened by hand, which took years including the time of Ai’s detention, during which his studio stayed active on the project. When Ai tried to get the names of the victims, the government blocked his efforts so he made it his own project to find the names of 5196 students killed – from a total death toll of 90,000 – and listed them as part of the piece. Two weeks after my trip to my ancestral hometown in China, it was especially poignant to find the surname of one branch of my own family, Zhou 周, on the list at numbers 5193 and 5194.
Like in Michael Mettler’s post about meeting refugees on a train journey, talking about work-life balance seems preposterous in Ai’s context. He chooses to put his life in danger every day with his political art. Like a firefighter or nuclear site cleaning crew, Ai puts his own life on the line for the sake of helping other people and making a bigger change in society and government.
Ai Weiwei’s Royal Academy show continues until Sunday, December 13th. Those two hours will stay with you for a long time.