IN HIS ‘PRELUDE’ to “The Lyrical Ballads”, Wordsworth spoke of poetry as “powerful emotions recollected in tranquility”. I guess that could be a fitting epigraph to Ai Weiwei’s tremendous exhibition now on at the Royal Academy. The Chinese artist has been tortured, incarcerated, beaten up, his passport confiscated, his studio burnt down and his workers harassed… such is the fear of the powerful Chinese government (the same one that treats Obama and Cameron with only mildly hidden contempt) to the power of his art.
And powerful it certainly is, in its often jokey inventiveness. The exhibition largely charts Ai’s stormy relationship with the Chinese government (its crude surveillance, its futile harassment, its failed attempts to muzzle his outspoken anger) in what amounts to one extended self-portrait. It’s a portrait of an artist as a citizen.
This portrait that Ai Weiwei offers, at its most obvious level, is that of the freedom fighter; one where the artistic imagination refuses to be constrained in the way that the man so clearly was. After his studio had been razed by the authorities, Ai WeiWei salvaged remnants of the destroyed place and reconstructed them into a series of sturdy walls (with all the symbolism suggested by the wall). You can destroy things physically, but you can’t destroy the idea behind them. The wrath of a government can never diminish the idea of art.
In a sense we’re privy to an inseparable duality: between the man (the political prisoner, locked in a cell) and the artist (imagination unbound…those powerful memories and emotions recollected in tranquility). Since it is his self portrait, it’s also the artist’s not too subtle way of presenting himself as he would have the world see him…the work is as clever a piece of self branding as the anti-capitalist semiotic of the Coca-Cola logo on the jade vase. The Ai WeiWei brand is that of the fearless artist who cannot be constrained. The artist as truth guerilla.
In this, the artist’s relationship with his public is a very modern, post pop-art one: his audiences are not so much museum goers as consumers. In the same way that they can relate to the Apple brand, Ai WeiWei courts his consumer base to relate to and buy into what his own brand of art has to offer: thoughtful and imaginative defiance against the super-state.
And as consumers, he offers his own ironic perspective: several of his pieces deliberately subvert the idea of commerce by turning valuable ‘pieces’ into entirely useless objects…into art
The artist was once imprisoned for about three months in a small padded cell. There with him, not three feet away were two prison officers. They had been ordered to monitor his every move, even as he defecated, but to never speak a word with him. In a feat of extraordinary memory, Weiwei spent the three months committing every minute detail to memory, only to recreate and process the experience in a series of sculptures (they are boxes through which viewers could spy in – voyeurs all – on vignettes of the incarceration). It’s a giant finger up the authority’s attempt to silence him.
But this is no expression of esoteric angst. I think the power of what Ai Weiwei is doing goes well beyond one individual’s relationship with a threatened state…potentially his art speaks for us all. We too live under the same watchful eye of Weiwei’s porcelain CCTV’s;
And like him we live in a state pretty much owned by a small cluster of very powerful men (the symbolism of that Coca-Cola logo once again) whose control of the media shape what and how we’re meant to think about the things that matter to them.
Perhaps this exhibition is more than the portrait of the artist… more a portrait of us all: mere consumers…not so much people as trained citizens (trained to consume) under the state’s supposedly benevolent supervision.
(Which begs the question – where are the Ai Weiwei’s of the West? Fortunately we seem to be moving on from the vulgar commercialism of Damien Hirst and the tawdry ugliness of Tracy Emin…but the energy that fuelled the Lowry’s and Guernica’s of the world seem to have been tamed… possibly by the controlling hand of the big galleries who know what their wealthy clients want…and that ain’t anger!)
But despite it all, the work is often mocking, often funny…he’s channeled his anger to rise above the primal scream; and there is about his pieces a wonderful joyousness…it’s the joyous celebration of Chinese craftsmanship. Unlike so many other artists whose atelier’s skills remain under wraps, Ai Weiwei very publicly trumpets the extraordinary craftsmanship of his team. To him, it’s a proud and very overt demonstration of Chinese brilliance. As a result, the art offers us this wonderful dynamism between the big picture themes of state oppression and crass commercialism (is a Jade jar worth more or less if a Coca-Cola logo has been stencilled across it?) and the equally relevant ‘small picture’ emphasis on the minutiae of the workmanship. He’s saying that the controlled anger of the artistic imagination is only really as good as the craftsmanship that allows the anger to communicate with others.
Here are impeccably carved marble leaves of grass, where the strength and the brittleness of the material imprison a child’s stroller. Or here is a towering chandelier (the first image shown here) constructed around the frames of bicycles…the bicycles Ai Weiwei grew up with…it’s light emanating through memory.
And that’s art!