It was only a few months ago that we were all queuing for Banky’s Dismaland in Weston to experience the anarchic spectacle as the artist unabashedly stuck the proverbial finger up at consumerist Capitalism and modern British political system. Now we find ourselves queuing again for Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy, London for the largest exhibition of the Chinese artist’s work in the UK to date. Whilst both are subversively political, challenge established ideas, question the cultural/financial values of art and are hugely successful at drawing the crowds there are still many things that separate them as unite them. I wonder though how many people will have seen both?
Weiwei’s art is anarchism that has found a conscience. If it’s possible for the two to work harmoniously together then Weiwei achieves it, in what are often very minimalist, conceptual and highly labour-intensive, ambitious sculptures/installations which subversively challenge human rights in previously untold or censored narratives of events. It is highly emotive work and charged with the ongoing ethical battle ‘freedom of speech’ that has even seen the artist who was commissioned with designing Bejing’s Olympic Stadium and conversely also imprisoned by the state. Renowned Blogger and art activist, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy creates an interesting tension between the popularity of activism in 21st Century Britain and place within which political artworks sit within the institute of the art world.
Two open copies of Phaidon’s iconic ‘The Art Book’ (the A to Z of ‘significant’ artists from medieval times to the present day) lay open side by side. The English/American version features Ai Weiwei and the Chinese version does not. In omitting the existence of the artist in one but not the other probably does Weiwei’s notoriety more good than harm but also somewhat chillingly summarises what is the principle themes in Weiwei’s practice of control, censorship and the documentation of history.
|'Straight' (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars, 1200 x 600cm.|
If the meaning in Banksy’s work is a one-liner then Weiwei’s is a poem. Ideas and meaning unfold gradually and are open to many interpretations. In the installation, titled ‘Straight’, 200 tonnes of steel reinforcing bars lay in undulating rows atop one another creating a wave on the floor of the central exhibition space. It first reads as a work of minimalist sculpture. Whilst it is massively ambitious in scale it’s simplistic in design; made up of one essential material lain in a systematic, regimented form. The whole thing takes on new significance when you discover the detail and making behind the work (and I stress that the only real way to do this is with the exhibition’s accompanying free audio guide) that the bars are from buildings involved in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 which have each individually been straightened by hand from their post quake twisted state. The waves in which the bars have been arranged now become shifting tectonic plates or waves off a Richter scale; each of the bars becomes symbolic of the scale of destruction and somehow quantitative to the number of lives lost. Even more worrisome upon the final discovery that the steel bars were taken from twenty schools whose construction was covered up by the Chinese government who after a forced investigation instigated by Ai they had to admit that corruption allowed builders to ignore safety codes when erecting the schools. Over 90,000 people were dead or missing as a result of the quake and it wasn’t until further investigation using social media and Ai’s blog that the names of the 5192 children who perished were published and in the exhibition accompanies the work ‘Straight’ surrounding it on the gallery walls.
Ai Weiwei’s work is known for its use of traditional craftsmanship skills, influenced from Ai’s upbringing when the artist initially earned money fixing/making furniture. In the pieces in this exhibition such as ‘Straight’ the work utilises the power of many and communities who collected and reshaped the steel bars as well as assisting in the collection of data and names of those missing/deceased to be revealed. It is an empowering piece, the fact the bars have been re-straightened is in itself an act of defiance and resilience, an attempt to correct that which is broken. The architectural properties of the bars as well references not only Weiwei’s own relationship with buildings as an artist that has worked as an architect but alludes to the idea of architecture as a way of reinforcing control on people, upholding certain regimes or influencing behaviour. It is a theme which reoccurs in many other works in the exhibition, ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’ being an arrangement of brick, stone and rubble from the site of the artist’s studio which was built with permission from the Chinese authorities and subsequently ordered to be knocked down within weeks of its completion after relationships with the authorities and Weiwei had soured after the artist’s arrest and detainment in 2008. The authorities continue to survey and monitor Weiwei’s activities since.
For me, Weiwei is an important artist because he is one of a few contemporary artists working today that raises the importance and position of art in modern life and the power of artists within society. This is a concept which has been maintained by Weiwei in his blog and twitter feeds which the artist sees as an integral part of his artistic practice into the modern wider world. The role of the artist becomes a duty or obligation to the wider community or audience (but does not necessarily mean it has to lose its playfulness or questioning nature). It reminds me of other artists who similarly work within their communities/political systems such as, Gabriel Orozco, Mona Hatoum and Francis Alys.
|'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn' (1995) Triptych of black and white prints, 199.9 x 180cm|
Throughout history you had your Duchamps, Warhols and Rauschenbergs who somewhat arrogantly or playfully (depending on how you look at it) called anything that they signed, said, exhibited or mass produced; ‘art’ . They re-valued and reassigned what art could be and what the role of the artist was. Weiwei has stated being influenced by these artists in his own earlier works and in this exhibition presenting the piece, ‘Hanging Man’ made from a bent clothes hanger as a direct reference to Duchamp and Dada. Given a similar treatment are ‘Table and Pillar’, one of a series of works that explores combining two ready-mades from Qing Dynasty temples to create new forms and challenge the ‘value’ of history vs. the art object; ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ and Weiwei’s coloured/Coca-Cola vases, again in which the values of cultural and financial work are questioned as well as the challenging of history, systems which it is documented/recorded and whom in society has the power to assign value to an object. The latter is an ideology is echoed in the beginning example of Weiwei’s omission from the Chinese Phaidon ‘Art Book’ to which Weiwei states a defiant truth, ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’ Alternatively Weiwei’s intervention of historical artefacts is seen to some as a deliberate act of vandalism, but perhaps in a similar way to Banksy, the role of the vandal and the artist are subverted when both artists’ interventions often add a commercial and cultural value to an object? As well as questioning the nature of what vandalism is it empowers the makers as being in control of creating value to objects rather than being dictated by authorities or system within which the work operates.
At times all of this becomes a little heavy and one almost feels better not knowing of the injustice, corruption and atrocities. Ignorance becomes bliss, but I still acknowledge that they are truths that we should and cannot ignore. “Art is not supposed to repeat what you already know. It is supposed to ask questions.”* The show ends on a slightly more light-hearted note with the recently commissioned piece specifically adapted for the exhibition, ‘Forever Bicycles’, a chandelier made up of Chinese bikes strewn with crystals hanging from the domed ceiling. The idea of a journey, wheels in motion and circular routes in some ways mirrors the artist’s new found freedom of having his passport reendowed since it was taken from him by the government in2011. It ironically also raises the ethics of being an artist as whilst Weiwei is an ambassador for freedom of speech it could be viewed that in his chosen occupation he has to lose his own freedom in his commitment/celebrity-like status to his cause, “an artist is never free...an artist is bound by his gift, his vocation”**
Weiwei has more than once stated his belief that it is not possible to separate the art from politics in China and goes back to my own belief from earlier that he is an anarchist with a conscience, an artist who sees his role as not merely a matter of presenting the world but fundamentally trying to change it.
Ai Weiwei is on at the Royal Academy until December 13th 2015
All text and images Copyright of Natalie Parsley©
*Kutlug Ataman from ’33 Artists In 3 Acts’ Sarah Thornton
** Andrei Tarkovsky ‘Sculpting in Time’