By Esin Huseyin
A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of exploring the RA’s Ai Weiwei exhibition with fellow Instagrammers and bloggers. These events are great because it gives you the opportunity to hear talks from experts prior to exploring the exhibition – this time round we had the freedom to explore with cameras and phones in hand. Instagram photos aplenty.
I have to state that this exhibition was in the top three exhibitions I’ve seen this year, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It’s entering it’s last couple of weeks, as it closes on the 13th December, and you need to make sure you explore the world of Ai Weiwei before it closes.
Ai Weiwei is one of China’s leading contemporary artists but his art has not been seen extensively in Britain. This particular exhibition explores his most significant work from 1993 onwards – compromising of work he produced during his time in China, after living in New York for a decade.
His work in general is dripping in Chinese culture, which is unsurprising considering his upbringing, it’s practically embedded in him. When you combine this with his life in New York, you come across this beautiful juxtaposition in his art work that has particular Western elements.
He is known for using traditional materials, in particular Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) to Qing dynasty (1644-1911) architectural components and furniture, within this exhibition. This variety of materials from wood, porcelain, marble or jade, seem to test the skills of the craftsmen working to his brief.
A few of the pieces that stood out the most to me were; Ai Weiwei, dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), Surveillance Camera (2010) and Straight (2008-2012).
Apparently, Ai Weiwei actually had to smash two urns because the first time round the photographer was unable to catch it – ouch!
As you walk around the rooms, you begin to realise that every brush stroke and material used is with purpose. A physical depiction of Ai Weiwei’s political, historical and cultural rhetoric. It’s the first time that I’ve fully been able to enjoy contemporary art without an inside snort. These pieces are personal, engaging and tell us a lot about Ai Weiwei himself, China and society as a whole.
By monumentalising something like technology, for example the security camera, it completely mocks the idea of this camera and turns it into the absurd. Prior to the exhibition we were told that Ai Weiwei had struggled with continuously being watched, with photographers snapping every moment of his life, including a walk in the park with his son.
This idea of being watched at every moment is something that resonates with society today, and causes quite a strong stir. When I was walking around this particular room, a lot of people were openly discussing the pros and cons of security and the Snoopers Charter.
Straight is one of the more moving pieces in the collection, with the central piece consisting of metal rods taken from the actual buildings affected by the 2008 earthquake. These rods were severely warped from the earthquake, and it took four years for them to be painstakingly hammered straight, by hand.
Around the walls are the list of those who lost their lives that day, thousands of names adorn the walls, enveloping all those that stand within the room. The steel rods are a pretty loud reminder into the atrocity that occurred that day – many blame the poor standards of the building for what happened that day.
In the corner of one of the rooms is a mass of porcelain river crabs, so lifelike that many are stunned into silence. They’re beady eyes following you as you explore the bodies. The word for crab in Chinese is a homonym for harmonious, we were told in the chat before the exhibition, and humorously used within Chinese government circles.
These pieces are clever, quick witted and irrevocably poignant with their storytelling style. You leave the exhibition with more questions that you can’t seem to wait until you can research, and even end up leaving thinking differently about the hold of the Chinese government.
Many of these pieces hide hidden meanings, like the crabs, many needing prior knowledge – another piece is actually mapped out in the shape of China, but it can only be seen from above. This is what makes the exhibition engaging, as you’re still learning after you leave.
To find out more or book a ticket visit the Royal Academy of Arts’ site.