Until 13 December 2015, the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly is hosting a major exhibition of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Throughout the Academy’s largest gallery rooms, it is important to take your time when observing Ai’s work, and perhaps to walk through it a second time. While I am no expert and do not visit nearly enough contemporary art shows, I wondered how contemporary art can be anything but political.
This is a photograph taken in one of the rooms. We can see vases painted in various colours, as well as three large black and white photographs of Ai himself. The three photographs show him dropping an ancient vase that he purchased in the 1990s.
Ai is trying to show that the importance of ancient art has been forgotten in China. On the vases themselves, the dripping paint could show modern city landscapes, with high buildings. The photographs show how easy it is to just drop such an important ancient work without flinching. I thought this was pretty significant. This indifference is echoed, in yet another piece, in the description of how certain public buildings are built in China, and how no effort is put into them surviving an earthquake.
A further strong piece presents a tree-like installation made of wooden pieces of many different shapes, including chair shapes. The description explains that from above, if one looks at this construction, one sees an outline of the Chinese territory, as if on a map. We however, who see it from underneath or inside, can’t discern this shape. Another point is that in addition, we can walk through this sculpture. Ai is trying to show that we as tourists and visitors can walk through China freely, while many Chinese citizens are not even allowed to, in their own state.
Finally, as a penultimate piece, we see four large boxes which, when you look inside, retell the time he was incarcerated in China because of his art. While he was not allowed to tell anyone about his time of imprisonment, he did it anyway.
It is humbling to be reminded that some of us will never know what courage of this kind means: the courage to scream when it could actually crush you.