Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts, London 2015

I picked up my camera and headed off to the Big Smoke for a day of treating myself to art gallery mooching.


I didn’t know an awful lot about Ai Weiwei before I spotted his exhibition was on at the Royal Academy of Arts, but I did know that it would be good with well executed work that would make me think harder and deeper not only about the work, but about its context.

He's the Beijing Andy Warhol... he wants to shock you

Never Sorry

Never go unprepared


Not wanting to go unprepared I did some homework in advance. My method of research is to ‘just Google it’ and put out a bit of lead-up content reporting my findings. So I started by finding the trailer for a video from Ai Weiwei entitled Never Sorry outlining Ai as “he’s the Beijing Andy Warhol…he wants to shock you…I love the culture but I want something new”. Not bad as a one-liner, in fact it could sum up Ai Weiwei within the 140 character limit. Which is handy, given that Ai Weiwei utilises the platform which is banned in China to expand his message globally.


So I continued my research. Having posted my excitement on Twitter, The Royal Academy responded by helping me along with a link to their bite-sized videos. I would recommend these to anyone about to visit the exhibition, there is an audio guide to support the tour but taking the time to understand the context first will help a lot, especially if you plan to visit as I did, carrying a bag, a camera, phone and the audio guide, the RA was very busy and taking the time to listen, look, photograph and think means you need to allow a few hours with the information provided, let alone really think about it as you look at it.


What my research revealed knocked me back and I can only say I was truly shocked. I watched this TED film with Ai talking about his work and restrictions. There were things in the back of my mind that I already knew but had never known the true impact of such as there being reported an earthquake in the Sichuan Province in 2008 which had killed thousands of people and that schools had fallen flat to the ground as a result. I knew that there were countless untold human rights abuses in China, that Tibet should be freed, that China has one of the world’s worst records for protecting its people. I recall watching a programme that reported prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, thousands of people were being displaced from their homes (read that as ‘being made homeless’) to make way for the shiny new stadium (you can read more about Beijing jailing and torturing protestors against this and Olympic city ‘cleansing’). Incidentally, now that the public land has been sold off for commercial gain, the Beijing Olympic stadium is now proving to be something of a White Elephant.


All this provides the vital context to Ai Weiwei’s work and, if you have a bit of time (and perhaps enough data) you should watch this documentary by the BBC Without Fear or Favour next because this is what will make you pay attention to the work, not just within the context of what’s on show in the exhibition, but because there is a much deeper level of understanding to be had of why Ai is so extreme in his approach and commitment to a life of making globally important art – so much so that I believe he is saying he would die for it; because art defines who he is and freedom of speech enables him to carry out his art.

The show opens with the first big piece, Bed, 2004 which is a piece recycled from Qing Dynasty timber, like much of Ai’s work, reclaimed salvage.

More photos of Bed

Headphones on


The show opens with the first big piece, Bed, 2004 which is a piece recycled from Qing Dynasty timber, like much of Ai’s work, reclaimed salvage. It is a map of China’s borders (I read this as restrictions and boundaries) rolled out flat that sits luxuriously on the floor creating a landscape of ripples that are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The quality of the timber is rich and satisfying, a beautiful object in itself, a very attractive sculpture.

Detail from Kippe, 2006, on show at the RA, November 2015

More photos of Kippe


A couple of bigger reclaimed pieces follow, Table and pillar, 2002 and Kippe, 2006 the former considered important due to the technical challenges and insight into the country’s past. The next few pieces are quite simple and illustrative of Ai Weiwei’s approach to making art. My impression was that the majority of these served the same purpose; to demonstrate Ai’s desire to destroy the sentiment of the past by using iconic and deeply valued objects and to show their perceived value as intangible. By turning functional pieces such as valuable stools and tables into unusable objects, this would render them practically pointless, however by utilising the methods of traditional craftmanship (the assigned factor that gives them their worth) to alter the objects, Ai manages to highlight the unnecessary value that they hold. Perhaps you could ask a question here that if the model for these items means them then becoming art will it add further value to the item’s antiquity for the future due to the application of the work of the artist to the object.
In these pieces Ai Weiwei’s interest in Dadaism and influence by the work of Marcel Duchamp is easily recognised, that of items grounded in the everyday that are taken apart and put back together with meticulous refinement. It is really very clear to see and the reference to Western art history contextualises globally.
For me, the standout piece of this exhibition is linked to the shock of the background behind the piece Straight made between 2008 and 2012. My research defined the exhibition for me and this piece truly brings to life the reality of government oppression and human suffering. China has historically been a secretive nation, maintaining power through secrecy and control of information.
The deadly earthquake suffered in 2008 measured 8.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS – formerly known as the Richter scale). The scale defines this as “Major damage to buildings, structures likely to be destroyed. Will cause moderate to heavy damage to sturdy or earthquake-resistant buildings. Damaging in large areas. Felt in extremely large regions”. Given this definition and the population density, all buildings in the area should have been constructed to be earthquake resistant, however 7 years later 69,195 people are currently known to be dead as a result, with 18,392 still missing. The point of this for Ai Weiwei was that of all the buildings that were destroyed, these schools were completely flattened. The earthquake hit at a time when children were in school yet school buildings shouldn’t have fallen and the Government wasn’t telling people who had disappeared and what the reason was, giving rise to a feeling that the Government hadn’t ensured the schools were properly constructed. Parents didn’t know if their children had perished in the earthquake.
Straight, 2008-2012 at the Royal Academy, November 2015

For Ai Weiwei he felt that he couldn’t understand the event and the devastation of it and the Government’s response without going to see it for himself and so he travelled to the area with a team and they started to collect names of those children who perished which were collated and read out by followers of his blog. The blog was later shut down by the Government for revealing “state secrets”. This resulted in Ai Weiwei being beaten by police and denied the ability to give evidence in support of one his assistants, he was then hospitalised for bleeding on the brain.

Later, Ai and the studio team volunteers were able to return and collate the names and details of those children and the printouts featuring the details are exhibited alongside Straight with accompanying photographs showing the catastrophic devastation caused by the earthquake. In  the photographs barely a building remains upright and search teams are seen recovering few bodies.


Straight itself is constructed from bars of rebar that Ai Weiwei anonymously collected from the clear up operation. The metal rods that were supposed to support and reinforce the concrete and protect the buildings from falling in many cases were very thin and inadequate. Straight is made up of around 90 tonnes of the 200 tonnes of rebar collected and straightened out as thought new by the team in which time Ai Weiwei was imprisoned and intimidated by the government for 81 days. This act of dedication to represent the individuals who died in the earthquake, and the effort to memorialise and remember them brings an emotional and human level into the work that isn’t seen in the previous items in the exhibition, and I think this brings the piece up a level that makes it connect more deeply with the audience.


There is also an element here that the bars are so well straightened you would never know that they were once bent from the earthquake, and it is like they in themselves are covering up the event, but straightened with a desire to put things back to how they were before, to treasure and remember the lives before the earthquake. This video shows the Making of Straight.

Moving on from Straight, we move into a room that talks about Ai’s struggles with the Government, his oppression as an artist and the Government’s attempts to constrain his work by bulldozing his studio. Ai had criticised the Beijing Olympics internationally, fought for those who suffered as a result of the earthquake and for over 300,000 children who had been harmed by infant formula. He utilised this as an event to commemorate the studio and hold a feast of river crabs. Of the items in this exhibit, He Xie, 2011 is a pile of 3,000 crabs clambering over one another, I think is the most interesting part. The translation for river crab ‘He Xie’ means harmonious, which is a concept of the Communist party’s slogan ‘The realisation of a harmonious society’ and this is taken to denote censorship within Chinese society. The feasting on river crabs, to which he was then, due to the Government, unable to attend becoming a piece of performance art and defiance by those attendees. The crabs shown were anatomically correct and made of hand painted porcelain, a mischievous edge I believe is shown in the escape of one of the crabs up the wall. I later felt like one of the clambering crabs on the tube in the midst of the madness.


More references to surveillance, challenging traditional values and oppression follow, the use of craftsmanship carefully executed in the work, Ai’s art business giving work to skilled individuals using high value materials, marble, tea, crystal, Han urns and the highly crafted Treasure Box, 2014. All traditional Chinese items.

The exhibition becomes renewed when we get to one of the last galleries featuring the S.A.C.R.E.D. 2012 diorama depicting torturous aspects from Ai’s incarceration such as interrogations and being watched using the loo. These could be viewed from the side, but if you were tall enough (I barely was and I am average height) you could peer in from the top by standing on a step and experience the pieces in an ‘out of body experience’ kind of a way as though you were either Ai witnessing his own life, or a video camera surveilling the situation. This room was decorated in a blingy, gold-coloured wallpaper of handcuffs and Twitter logos with Ai’s face as the bird. I feel it is demonstrating that he can overcome the authorities and this treatment by still getting his message out through Twitter. The image of this was quite sinister, Ai playing the Government at its own game and by putting his face on the wallpaper as the bird, he’s become the more powerful force. The fact that the paper is only printed gold and not actually made from gold shows that the luxury material itself is unnecessary, but also refers to mass production techniques and mass distribution through social media.

More photos of Bicycle Chandelier


Finally the mass production is addressed again through the giant Bicycle Chandelier, 2015 commissioned to be re-fashioned with crystals for the Royal Academy, made from Forever Bicycles historically ridden all over China but ridden less in recent times due to increasing modernisation while riding a bike in China has become a luxury and not a utility. This piece suits the elegance and luxury gold leaf of its position under the atrium roof, the commissioning of the piece by the RA feeling like an act of extravagance by the gallery itself, possibly funded by sales of merchandise in the gift shop as you exit. I wondered whether Ai Weiwei embraces corporate souvenir sales to help fund his mission (given that some of the books themselves are his work) and the partnerships with galleries seeing it as a necessary way to enable art, or whether the monetisation of art, art galleries and the link to consumerism is seen as an additional issue, perhaps one not to be addressed given the number of problems he is already tackling.

I’ve since read some art reviews on Ai’s exhibition in the press. Although to a great degree the critics are understanding the work, they credit Ai for his celebrity and politics but criticise the value of the work as art. I think they are missing the point. There is a marketing aspect to creating art of asking ‘who is your audience?’ swiftly followed by ‘what do you want your audience to feel, think and do as a result of seeing your work?’. For this element Ai is strong, he’s embraced marketing to deliver his work to the masses in addition to the gallery circuit and achieved this within the West’s commercial and capitalist structure. He’s managed to reach outside of China. Despite the content of the exhibition, The critics fail to contextualise that China has a very different culture and the Ai has worked outside of this, he’s embraced a broader global perspective and has overcome huge restrictions. He manages to speak to a broader population and not just the niche of the art world, a clique that many of the masses struggle to connect with.


As an artist you have to adapt to the fast changing environment in which you are working. Ai combines his work with current communication methods such as Instagram and Twitter in order to not only target his audience, but to create a lasting digital footprint about his work that can’t be restricted by the government and this work has influence within a contemporary, global context. In China Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are all restricted, Ai cannot be searched for using Google as his output is censored. Freedom of speech is not allowed.


For this I see him as a better communicator, I agree with his stance on producing work that is clear and straightforward to understand, that’s not tied up in the impenetrable jargon of the art world, that art should be available to the broadest possible audience, that it shouldn’t take a degree, a masters and years of training to be able to decipher the language of the pieces.


Ai’s work is current and relevant to the global population, if the West are to continue to increase trade with China, Human Rights abuses need to be addressed by politicians, the voting public need to be aware of the issues and to influence from the bottom up. The Human Rights Act needs to be kept strong and not watered down so that the democratic principles to protect people help to ensure that trade is ethical and that consumers are not unwittingly buying in to harming those who work for Chinese companies.


I left the exhibition feeling it was a job well done. I took quite a few photos of the exhibition that I’ve posted to my Flickr Gallery in addition to those in this article. Please feel free to post your thoughts below.

I first published this blog on Thursday, 12 November 2015 at