Friday, 25 September 2015

Exhibition Review: Ai Weiwei's Retrospective at the Royal Academy

The current Ai Weiwei exhibition showing at the Royal Academy of Arts is in many ways a retrospective, expressing a series of serious and shocking moments within Weiwei’s life; the artworks bring to our attention, the sheer impact that the Chinese government had on the artist, in their attempts to censor him and anyone practically anyone else that dared to speak the truth.
Throughout the entire exhibition there is a strong autobiographical theme; at the heart of his works is the struggle that the artist went through. There are artworks spanning over 22 years as well as a few recent art works, reflecting on the artist’s personal experiences in a first person narrative. We are meant to view the artworks, already knowing his past and the stories behind it, hence an impressive audio guide with images and video clips on each artwork as well as input from the curator. One of the most moving artworks for me, was S.A.C.R.E.D, which reflects on his struggles in 81 day detention, when he was monitored by the Chinese authorities and his passport was confiscated. This artwork consists of six rectangular boxes, each reproducing a scene from a day in his life during his 81 day confinement. As well as imprisonment, the artist reflects on the sudden bulldozing of his Shanghai studio, shown through Souvenir from Shanghai, 2012. This artwork is an example of Weiwei creating a work of art literally from the rubble and ruins of his destroyed studio. 
The artist focuses a lot of his attention towards the Chinese government’s censorship and the affect is has on himself and others. The artwork Straight 2008-12 addresses the 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province in which thousands of people were killed, and how the authorities attempted to cover up the reality of the destruction and loss of lives. It could be seen these works are Weiwei’s attempt to expose the deception and dishonesty of the Chinese government. On two of the gallery walls are panels with the names of the victims of the earthquake, separated by a central sculpture made from steel bars reclaimed from the wreckage caused by the earthquake. 
Weiwei made a decision to record the events taking place and to document his censorship, and record the Chinese government’s attempts to silence free expression of the people. This is both radical, daring and certainly a bold move to make. Without his art, we would have little to no insight into these events. Having been subjected to such a high level of suppression, Ai has experienced being both a witness and a victim and he is now turning these experiences into art, most likely to expose and shame the Chinese authorities. Only having recently been allowed his passport back, it is his first time in five years that he is able to overlook his art and have a significant role in the overall process of an overseas exhibition. 
In the courtyard of the Royal Academy, we walk through a gathering of reconstructed trees, made from pieces of wood which were sought from the mountains of China. Weiwei brought the trees to his studio where they were reassembled with acute attention to detail and made into more ‘realistic’ trees. Not only does Ai WeiWei transform the interior space of the Royal Academy, but also adds his touch to the courtyard, integrating natural resources from China with the British landscape, in a way symbolising his return to society and his new found ability to travel to England. 

All in all this exhibition definitely did not disappoint, not only was it a hit to the sense but it was also a learning experience, discovering more about the chinese culture, political system as well as the artist's personal journey. It was not the best exhibition I have seen to date, but I would certainly recommend it if you have the time to visit! 

- Olivia Charlotte Alice

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