It was only the day before yesterday that a friend told me of her intention to make an artwork about the refugee crisis which set me musing about the role of the artist as political commentator. I felt that while there had been great paintings and sculptures in the past, the most effective points were now made by the photo-journalist, the documentary film maker, the cartoonist or graffitist. Then I visited the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy and did a complete 180 degree turn. The exhibition is everything you could want art to be: thought-provoking, moving, original and beautiful – and undoubtedly political.
It was brilliant timing by the Royal Academy to be running the exhibition at the same time as the visit by President Xi Jinping. It proved that while the long arm of the regime was able to ensure that he was cheered the length of the Mall, and that although our leaders smiled and fed him turbot and venison, he would have been aware that not everybody in the UK had forgotten China’s record on human rights. Along with the pointed absence of Prince Charles, it maybe rankled a bit to know that less than a mile away were huge banners celebrating an artist that the regime had so ineffectively tried to suppress. If President Xi’s minions had passed on to him news of what was in the exhibition, as surely they must, he would have known that it included tableaux of Ai himself being held in detention as well as pictures of the studio which the authorities first of all encouraged and then knocked down.
The exhibition starts with the impressive and somewhat ominous reconstructed trees in the courtyard and the grand scale continues inside. Nearly everything seemed out-sized. Unusually, photography was allowed for this exhibition, I imagine Ai Weiwei is against institutions forbidding things. Amid the visitors clicking away, the photo police, usually so diligent in the pursuit of their duties seemed at a bit of a loss, though one did manage to point out that I had got too close to these beautifully joined stools – I had missed a magic line on the floor; presumably you or the art turned into dust if it were crossed.
Indeed, throughout the exhibition there is much carefully crafted joinery to admire. Ai has commissioned craftsmen to carve intricate metre high cubes, to intervene with antique tables so that they stood elegantly but uselessly on two legs. Work after work bore testament to a vanishing China but also made you question value in art both for the ancient and the contemporary.
This work Bed is made of dismantled temples and represents a map of China which you can apparently only see by looking at the cross section. My geography was not up to identifying the similarities: I was just bowled over by the extraordinary skill with which it has been put together.
Of course Ai does not take out a chisel himself. If there is a debate about the role of the artist as political commentator, he is also a prime subject about that other perennial debate about whether an artist should make his or her own works. Ai’s skill lies not in his making abilities but in his extraordinary powers of conception. By harnessing armies of artisans he can create on a truly monumental scale.
At the centre of the Royal Academy, in the grandest room, was the most moving work. It was made out of steel reinforcing bars and is a memorial to all those who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, where some twenty schools collapsed, killing more than five thousand students. Ai clandestinely purchased the substandard steel that should have saved them and had 200 tonnes transported to his studio where it was painstakingly straightened by hand. The result is Straight. Around the walls are the names of the students who died.
Before signing up China to build nuclear power stations in the UK, David Cameron and George Osborne should visit the Ai exhibition; they should look at the pile of straightened steel and read the 5,000 names on the wall. They should think of the children who had died because corrupt officials had skimped on earthquake proofing for personal gain. If China has such a poor regard for its own citizens, and if, rather than tackle corruption, it would prefer to muzzle an artist of Ai’s stature, why does our Government imagine they will have any regard for the well-being or safety of people five thousand miles away?
They should also note one of the smaller works: two books about art published by Phaedon. They appear identical, and are open at the same page. Then you notice that they are not the same: in the Chinese edition, the entry on Ai Weiwei has been omitted and replaced by another artist. Dealing with the Chinese comes at a price.
Ai Weiwei is showing at the Royal Academy until December 13