Ai Weiwei

Royal Academy of Arts, London.

By Steve Cox NOV 2015

The main courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts in London features a dozen dead trees. On closer inspection, we find that they have been manufactured from disarticulated logs and branches, which have then been bolted together. The effect is pleasingly surrealistic – a feature evident in the best works that mark this major exhibition by the Chinese artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei.

For Western art lovers, Ai Weiwei has almost achieved sainthood. In his native country, he has been imprisoned, beaten and hospitalised and had his studios reduced to rubble because of his calls for government transparency and his demands of freedom of speech. Consequently, he has reached the status of martyr or holy man. This rarefied position makes it very difficult to critique his work because any negativity will seem churlish, given the very real suffering he has already experienced. Where does one begin to separate the artist from the dissident? Is this even possible? Dissidence is in his blood. When Ai was a baby, his poet father was arrested and the family sent to a labour camp where for twenty years his father was forced to clean public toilets. Ai’s position as an activist is interdependent on his art. And his art is increasingly dependent on his position as an activist.

This is Ai’s first major retrospective in the UK. He is best known here for filling Tate Modern’s great Turbine Hall entrance with 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds. For the general public in London he is one of the most popular artists, and this exhibition is the most crowded that I have experienced at the Royal Academy. The audience ... Subscribe to read this article in full

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