On a dreary Monday evening I plonked myself on the tube for a few stops to Piccadilly Circus and after a little stroll down the street, I was there. All terribly convenient which was pleasing as I walked into the Courtyard, greeted by one of the artist’s rather impressive installations, “Tree”. There were people everywhere taking selfies, smiling and conversing about the piece. “Bringing nature back to the city” I overheard one passerby say as they looked up into the grey London sky through the courtyard viewfinder. The scale created spectacle and this theme continued through much of the show. Photos, engagement and expression of opinion openly encouraged. It bred a nice atmosphere.
“Tree”, however, has a much more political slant for the creator. The sections of wood sourced from dead trees in the mountains of Southern China and assembled in his community studio space are said to represent a “One China” ideology. Ai Wei Wei has never shied away from commenting on socio-political issues, using creative expression to pose questions and ultimately demand change. It says a lot for the importance of the piece, that a Kickstarter fund raised £123,000 to bring the installation to the Academy. “Marble Couch”, a piece placed amongst the trees caused much merriment as children and elderly folk a like prodded at it in amazement exclaiming, “It’s hard! But it doesn’t look like it is.” The piece references history with the Ming Dynasty of Imperial China, known for rendering common objects impractical as a demonstration of wealth and power.
As I approached the entrance to the show, I realised I made a glaring mistake in not booking my tickets online. This meant queueing for around 30 minutes, something I would have been more okay with had I not had a flight in a few hours time. Regardless, I got in, got my handy audio guide, with commentary from Ai Wei Wei himself inter spliced and I was on my way.
From there, Ai’s impactful and poignant story telling was breathtaking. A few pieces stood out for me during the walk round but I definitely would have liked more time to enjoy it. “Straight” is an extremely beautiful commemorative piece that deals with the 2008 earthquake that struck Sichuan. Steel rods were surreptitiously gathered by Ai and his team from the rubble, straightened and laid out in an undulating pattern to represent a seismic wave. It is believed that authorities were trying to hide the fact so many buildings, including many schools were poorly constructed, ultimately leading to many thousands of children’s deaths. Look up Ai’s piece “So Sorry” for another take on this tragic event. It succeeds in moving you.
The idea of challenging the Chinese state is a thread that carries through most bluntly in his piece, “S.A.C.R.E.D.”. The scene Ai depicts is whilst he was detained as a “political dissident’ for “alleged economic crimes”. The piece really drives home the oppressive nature of the government and the fact a guard was 1 metre away from him at all times, the level of control they imposed. These highly detailed dioramas are rendered inside giant iron boxes, the play on scale by making the viewer look through a peek hole is interesting. It’s a nice juxtaposition against the immensity of most other works on show. I felt those were the pieces that left an impression on me most, having said that, “Coloured Vases” and “Marble Stroller” were intriguing for their manipulation of materials and given added context when you heard the story behind them. The audio guide actually proved to be rather essential in understanding the story behind most of the work as you could easily take your own experiences to the pieces and completely subvert their meaning again.
Ai Wei Wei is a great communicator, using his artworks to relay a message. Politically subversive, at times melancholic, story telling with staunch conviction. That’s where the power in the work lies beyond the high standard of execution and quality of materials. Thought provoking, inspiring and a must see if you’re in London. Check out the little figures in the gift shop on your way out as well. If I wasn’t a broke boy, I would have picked one up.
I’ve attached a couple of studies from my moleskine throughout the piece. Thanks for reading.