As much as Ai is an artist who works with traditional crafts – joinery, cabinet making, carving – he is perhaps as well known for his use of digital media. The internet has become one of his most essential tools through which he can communicate as a Chinese artist, navigate state authority and connect to an international audience (his much-followed blog ran from 2006 to 2009).
Ai’s attachment to and belief in digital culture is also evident in the format of his extensive RA exhibition, in that there are no restrictions on photography throughout the space. Unusually, for such a big show at a venerable institution, the act of sharing these works, or at least the visitor’s record of encountering them, is actively encouraged (via #AiWeiwei).
An outspoken critic of the Chinese government, Ai has lived under surveillance for many years; his vast studio compound in Caochangdi has twenty cameras trained on it (which he apparently routinely dresses with lanterns).
In the RA exhibition, many of the works focus on the idea of being watched, of social control and, ultimately, how art can try to respond to these imposed conditions.
In a room containing an expanse of marble flowers and a child’s pushchair, for example, Ai pits two cameras against each other: the artist’s video recorder versus the state’s CCTV camera. Here, the power that the objects have in keeping people in check is rendered ineffective – each has been expertly turned from a mute block of white marble.
One of the most powerful pieces in the exhibition, Straight, is Ai’s response to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 (see top two images).
Arranged in the shape of a seismic wave, a carpet of steel rods almost fills the gallery floor. Each piece of metal was taken from the site of the quake, which saw hundreds of poorly-constructed schools collapse and over 5,000 students killed.
At Ai’s direction, each rod his studio collected was hand-straightened, reverting its bent and buckled shape back to something like its original state. The names of the students who died – who the steel structures did not adequately protect – are rendered along the walls in the giant space.
There are other pieces which feel like memorials, too. Leading up to the entrance of the Academy, the first work on display is Tree (2009-10, 2015), Ai’s forest of eight reassembled trees composed entirely of dead trunks and branches which were pinned together with steel in his studio.
The courtyard installation was funded by over 1,300 Kickstarter backers, achieving the largest ever amount raised on the platform for an art project in Europe.
In as much as the work itself is about bringing together disparate parts to make a whole – perhaps a comment on the idealisation of the China story – the means in which Tree was created, specifically for this site, also point to the power of the crowd and the reach of online support and belief.
Towards the end of the show, S.A.C.R.E.D. reveals Ai’s artistic response to his 81-day incarceration by the Chinese government in 2011. Six shoulder-height boxes meticulously recreate the prison conditions Ai faced, complete with plastic-covered walls and furniture and the two guards who watched his every movement (dressing, showering, using the toilet…).
Ai of course got through this terrible ordeal – yet the resulting dioramas reaffirm that many of the pieces in this moving show represent the outcome of a struggle, a very real assertion that the individual has a power in simply surviving. In his art, Ai also gives voice to many of those who can no longer speak out.
In the gift shop there’s a series of fridge magnets available, each bearing an Ai Weiwei quote. One reads: “A small act is worth a million thoughts.” As a visitor, you leave the show feeling enlivened by Ai’s work, that his own small acts can – and have – made a difference.
Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy in London from September 19 until December 13. See royalacademy.org.uk. A film of Ai Weiwei talking to Tim Marlowe about his life and work, filmed at the RA earlier this week, is available here.