Dave Kellaway reviews of the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy London (until the 13th December)
You see tons of steel rods intricately laid out across most of the floor area. They mimic an undulating landscape or a rock formation with faults. Why are they there?
You look at the videos playing on the other wall and you see the terrible images of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed 70,000 including 5000 children who died because it hit during school time.
But they died for another reason. Experts on the video point out the substandard concrete. Due to bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption the school buildings were an accident waiting to happen in an earthquake zone. Then you hear the officials on the telephone refusing to divulge the names of the people who were killed. Faced with its own responsibilities the state tried to shut off any debate or investigation. Ai Weiwei got involved with the citizens association demanding the truth. He campaigned but also he produced this incredible art installation. On the walls you have the 5000 names of the children laid out in columns.
But why the rods? The artist organised hundreds of people to collect over 90 tons of the twisted rods from the wreckage which he took back to his studio and got another big team to beat back into straight rods in order to make his installation. Through it he focuses attention on the core of the event, the explanation of the tragedy. At the same time there is almost a ritual aspect – of not forgetting, of commemorating those thousands of children – through the laborious process of straightening all those rods.
Uncritical commentators on Chinese society might exult about the growth statistics and the very real improvement in ordinary people’s living conditions but the picture is more contradictory. There is a cost and price for a growth led by the new capitalist oligarchs and a corrupt state bureaucracy.
Weiwei’s art responds to the official lies and silence but he has suffered the consequences. In 2011 in part due to his role in the Sichuan protest he was arrested and secretly detained for 81 days. Two guards monitored him constantly. As Weiwei states in the exhibition they were careful to have him medically examined every day but the guards were instructed not to converse with him. It was a form of psychological torture. However the whole time he was working out how he could turn this experience into an art work that can reach out and tell his story and China’s story to the world.
So here we see 6 boxes set up like the dioramas you see in the 19th century where you peer into something like a dolls house. Instead what you see is a 50% lifesize recreation of Weiwei’s incarceration. You see the guards watching him sleep, shower, defecate or interrogating him. Every detail of the cell with its peculiarly plastic wrapped furniture was recalled and recreated by the artist. You as the viewer get to peer in just like the authorities did or today as a witness to this repression. You viscerally feel the claustrophobia and the boredom he must have suffered.
Apart from these two stunning installations there is much else to enjoy and think about in this exhibition. A lot of pieces use wood recuperated from very old houses that have been demolished by the headlong rush to build the new megacities. He reassembles such found objects using the wonderful skills of the craftspeople he has gathered together in his team. Weiwei wants to question a modernity which produces so much ugliness and temporary tat.
In one room he puts everyday goods or tools for repression in display cases and uses quite expensive materials to reproduce them so we see a pair of handcuffs made out of marble or sex toys made out jade. A surveillance camera is made out of marble too – his studios are under constant surveillance. He is pointing out that material well-being cannot be simply traded off with democratic rights to free expression and liberty.
Weiwei understands the ecological question too. Not only does he recycle and use found objects in this exhibition he also directly refers to the issue. There is a gas mask made in marble highlighting the huge pollution in the new urban centres that the regime is only now beginning to address.
During the recent visit of the Chinese president John Ross, a supporter of Socialist Action, former aide to Ken Livingstone and a recent holder of a post in a Chinese university, wrote in praise of the Chinese leadership.
He claims the Chinese government has championed the most important human right of all – the lifting of 600 million Chinese out of poverty and this is far more important than liberal concerns about human rights. The exhibition shows part of the human story that John misses entirely – the direct costs of economic growth or of the one child policy under a repressive, corrupt system. Clearly it is far easier to numerically measure the rise in wages than the effects on a people of the lack of freedom, the arbitrary imprisonment, the official murders and brutality? In any case repressive and reactionary regimes have brought material improvement for working people in the past – think of Mussolini in Italy who cleared the swamps, improved agriculture and put Italy back to work.
So if you are in London any time before the 13th when it finishes go and see this show, it is beautiful, deeply political and inspirational.