In an age where video surveillance is increasingly compromising our personal privacy, artist Ai Weiwei speaks a universal language for our times. The penetrative artist is the focus of a major exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts in London, opening on the 19 September 2015, and it’s his first ever UK exhibition of his work on such a broad scale.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio, Image courtesy Ai Weiwei, © Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio, Image courtesy Ai Weiwei, © Ai Weiwei

Ai’s work embodies themes of government corruption, surveillance, national borders, disasters and freedom of speech through the mediums of installation, sculpture and photography. With works on display across a variety of media, the exhibition is a must see for the social and political art enthusiast.

Ai is from a dissident, creative background. Born on 28 August 1957 in Beijing, his father was the Chinese poet, Ai Quing. Ai Quing was denounced by the government during the Anti-Rightist Movement and in 1958 the family was sent to a labour camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjia, when Ai was just one year old. At the end of their term in incarceration, the family was exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961 where they remained for 6 years. Upon Mao Zedong’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the family returned to Beijing in 1976.

In 1978, Ai studied animation at the Beijing Film Academy and during the same year, he was one of the founders of the early Avant-garde art group, the “Stars.” From 1981 to 1993, Ai lived in the United States, mainly in New York City and studied briefly at Parsons School of Design. In 1983 he attended the Arts Students League of New York where he studied with Bruce Dorfman, Knox Martin and Richard Pousette-Dart. But he soon dropped out of school and scraped his living drawing street portraits and working odd jobs. During this period, he gained exposure to the works of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, and began creating his own conceptual art by altering readymade objects.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera, 2010, Marble, 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio, Image courtesy Ai Weiwei, © Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera, 2010, Marble, 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio, Image courtesy Ai Weiwei, © Ai Weiwei

Around this time, Ai met Beat poet Allen Ginsberg during a poetry reading where the pioneer of counterculture literature read out several poems about China. The two subsequently became good friends. Living in New York City’s edgy East Village, Ai carried a camera at all times and would shoot his surroundings. The collection of images later became known as the New York Photographs.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts is powerfully evocative from the start. In the first room, we are presented with the artist’s commentary on the replacement of the artisan with mass production through his installation, Bed. When Ai returned to China in 1993, he began purchasing tieli – a hardwood used to construct furniture and buildings – from temples of the Quing Dynasty (1644-1911). The temples were being dismantled to make way for the rapid development and expansion of the principle cities.

Ai was keen to promote traditional methods of carpentry that were becoming obsolete due to the mass production and advance in technology. The artist challenged the skills of contemporary carpenters by asking them to make three-dimensional maps of China. These carpenters use hidden mortise-and-tenon joints in their work instead of nails, screws or glue.

Bed is part of a series that presents China as a three-dimensional map, making the country look like it has been rolled out flat. Bed is presented as an empty frame, suggesting that mass production has replaced the authenticity and craft of traditional ways of productivity.

Bed sets the tone for the next room, which is a harrowing look at the methods of production during the May 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province of Southeastern China. A film depicts the aftermath of the earthquake, when 20 badly constructed government schools collapsed killing more than 5,000 students. Despite harassment from the Chinese government, the artist made a citizens inquiry into the disaster. Ai made several films with the aim of documenting all of the names of the deceased. In the exhibition, we are powerfully immersed in the disaster and government cover up – all of the names are displayed on the walls of the room. And on the floor in the middle of the room is bent and twisted rebar, painstakingly straightened by Ai and his team by hand and returned it to its original, pre-earthquake condition.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, we are presented with the artist’s ever increasing harassment by the Chinese authorities. In one room, a surveillance camera crafted from marble is positioned on a cabinet – a reflection of the twenty originals that were placed throughout his studio-house to monitor his every movement. A gas mask is also displayed – a thought provoking comment on the thousands of people who suffer respiratory illness each year caused by pollution in Beijing.

As the Chinese authorities began to alienate the artist more and more, it culminated the on 3 April, 2011 when he was arrested at Beijing International airport. Ai was taken to a secret location and illegally detained for 81 days. On his release the artist was forbidden to speak to anyone about his incarceration – but this never deterred him. The artist memorised every detail of the space he was held in and created 6 exactly half sized models of the room. At the tops and on the sides of the replica rooms are small, square windows. On peering in, one can see other small models of Ai being watched over by two guards while he sleeps, showers, eats and defecates. In the corner of the room is a fan, the only ventilation he was exposed to during the time he spent locked up. The installations appear to publicly challenge the Chinese government about their inhumane pursuit to break the artist’s spirit.

When Ai was released, he was charged by the authorities with tax evasion. They fined his company nearly 1.5 million and gave him 15 days to pay. The public offered their support by giving him money towards settling the debt. Some threw donations over the wall of his studio compound while others contributed online. Ai responded with the work – I.O.U, in which he wrote promissory notes to each of the 30,000 donors. The notes were in turn scanned and turned into wallpaper.

Another work named Golden Age is a wallpaper cleverly decorated with the Twitter logo, a pair of handcuffs and a surveillance camera. The work smartly references the artist’s interest in social media and his limitation of personal freedom by the Chinese authorities.

Ai’s subversive artworks and never surrendering attitude is truly inspiring and the exhibition kicks that home. It’s a must for anyone interested in the social, political and cultural aspects of art in the 21st century.

By Ray Kinsella

Ai Wei Wei at The Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 19 September – 13 December 2015. For more information visit https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/ai-weiwei