For those who don’t know, Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist who made himself an enemy of the state in China for seeking to expose corruption and official incompetence. He has been an active critic of China’s record on human rights and has had his own freedom curtailed as a result.
Those of us living in Asia have little chance to view his work up close because of the sensitivities involved in associating with him. In April 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Airport, he was held under house arrest for 81 days without any official charges being filed. Now at large again he is internationally now more famous for his activism as for his art. His most recent work is a combination of the two.
It is a special event to be able to see a large collection of Ai’s work presented at a major venue like the RA. The central artwork of his London exhibition relates directly to his activism in trying to get to the true extent of the death-toll in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which an estimated 90,000 people died. The names of the dead have never been released, but Ai wanted to know, in particular, just how many children died following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools”; buildings so poorly constructed that the children never stood a chance.
The film accompanying the installation makes it clear how the Chinese authorities attempted to intimidate Ai, and the circumstances of his house arrest. While visiting the scene of the earthquake, Ai can be heard speaking to Chinese officials asking them for official numbers of dead in the earthquake. He is told the numbers are not available and the conversation reveals their paranoia that the information might fall into the wrong hands.
After visiting the quake site, Ai and his team went about acquiring hundreds of tons of the twisted steel rods that had been reclaimed from the site. The team then proceeded to perfectly straighten each rod to create an artwork they would call ‘Straight’.
During this period, we also get to see how Ai built a new home and studio complex near Shanghai, but before he could open it, he was informed by the authorities (who had initially approved it) that he had contravened regulations and would have to demolish it. This was their reaction to his activism over the earthquake censorship. The interviews with his oppressors are captured on tape and demonstrate Ai’s resolute stance in forcing them to place him under house arrest; that is, to admit their intention to censor him and prevent him from working. It also shows the singular lack of shame on the part of the Chinese officials in carrying through their orders. It’s a real insight into what it’s like to deal with an authoritarian regime, where dissent is not allowed and only one view will prevail.
Straight depicts an earthquake zone, a fault-line, a natural disaster zone forged by man. It is an impressive statement but the story behind its creation is equally so. Ai’s team carried on working throughout the period of his house arrest and he was therefore pleasantly surprised to find just how many steel rods had been straightened – 150 tons worth are used in the final installation. The idea of reclaimed and re-purposed material is apparent in other work in this exhibition, including the piece ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’ which is a large rectangular block made up of bricks, concrete blocks and wooden carvings retrieved from the rubble of his Shanghai studio.
The Ai Weiwei exhibition runs at the Royal Academy in London until December 13.