One in a Billion: Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

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The most anticipated exhibition of the year has finally arrived as the prolific and extremely influential artist Ai Weiwei displays his artwork at the Royal Academy. Arguably the most talked about modern artist of the twenty first century in China and now the world, Ai Weiwei has overcome extreme social and political barriers to bring his work to these beautiful exhibition halls this autumn.

 Photo by Jane Simpkiss
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The exhibit displays not only his recent work from his new studio in Berlin but also his past decade’s portfolio of work since he returned from New York to China. Ai Weiwei has not been back to England since his last groundbreaking installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’ (2010) at the Tate Modern which saw thousands of hand-painted porcelain seeds flood the floors of the Turbine Hall and thousands of people rush to see his mesmerising work.

Upon entry to the courtyard of the Royal Academy, large towering trees immediately welcome you with branches reaching out in every direction and at different angles. ‘Tree’ (2015) is a collection of structures made from sections of dead trees and steel; the wooden components have been collected on the mountains of southern China.

The eight grand and strong standing trees reflect Ai Weiwei’s commentary on the way in which groups of people from different backgrounds, in terms of race and culture, have congregated together to form ‘One China’, and in doing so references the state-sponsored ‘One China’ policy intended to defend China’s territorial honour.

The ‘One China’ policy was created to insist that there is only one state named ‘China’ despite two governments (the second being Taiwan) claiming to be ‘China’. This highlights a recurrent theme in Ai Weiwei’s work as he uses art as a mechanism to comment on the social constructs that constitute the political formation of his country.

Photo by Jane Simpkiss
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Ai Weiwei is notorious for producing artworks with his teams that are on an enormous and mind-blowing scale impossible to ignore at his exhibitions. ‘Straight’ (2008-12) is the centrepiece of the exhibition, and one of his most recent works that responds to the tragedies that accompanied the 2008 Sichuan province earthquake. The earthquake saw thousands of young people dying in schools, as government-built buildings were not strong enough to cope with the pressures of the natural disaster. The schools were made out of weak and flimsy materials, chosen by corrupt local officials. Ai’s installation is made from bent and twisted steel bars from the aftermath of the earthquake; the materials were transported to his Beijing studio where they were straightened by hand and returned to their original state. The piece serves as a memorial to the tragic series of events.

Ai Weiwei works with a variety of media but is well known for his ambitious wooden structures and sculptures. ‘Fragments’ is a consolidation of his ‘Furniture and Map’ series, which was formed using architectural salvage from four temples and items of furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. When first approached it appears to be randomly assembled but when seen from above you realise that it is an exact replica of the map of China.

The structure allows one to weave in and out between the wooden posts just as a visitor or traveller would traverse across the different state borders within China. The stark reality is that although foreigners may be allowed to freely cross Chinese states, Chinese citizens are not. The piece is skeletal and feels empty; China is not a whole but instead made up of many parts – thus this piece threatens the ‘One China’ policy being instituted by state powers.

Ai Weiwei has expanded his artistic range by creating ‘Finger’ (2014), a wallpaper piece that features a raised middle finger in a geometric and visually appealing pattern. The connection between his photographs in ‘Study of Perspective’ (1995-2003) and this wallpaper is apparent as the middle finger emblem is repeated. Ai uses this socially recognised defiant body language as a way to reject the people who are trying to force their views upon him.

Photograph by Jane Simpkiss
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Ai Weiwei is an activist for human rights not only through his art but also through social media. He will continue to reach out and inspire people through his talents. Ai Weiwei portrays his thoughts and feelings about the pursuit of human rights worldwide through his art and will continue to do so until he sees the change that is justly needed in society.

The exhibition is absolutely mind-blowing as you are taken on a journey through both the artist’s personal development and the social development of China. It is a testament to the perceptive powers Ai has to acknowledge China’s environmental and social issues and translate them into something visual and communicative.

Until 13th December 2015.

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