Ai Weiwei at the RA

Today I finally got to Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy. When it first opened in September I’d just begun classes, and though I seriously considered going on opening weekend, I ended up not because of reading I wanted to get done. Last week I was looking at upcoming exhibitions and realised that this weekend is the last one for this exhibition. In a bit of a panic I booked tickets straightaway, and am so glad I did.

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Walking up to the RA you pass by a corridor of trees, not alive, but assembled from pieces of dead trees from southern China. They are just as beautiful as they are haunting; on of the most interesting features being how they came to be there. The tree’s a very large-scale installation, were made possible through crowdfunding, which I think is really interesting and pretty amazing. I’m not sure if this sort of funding will play an increasing role in the creation of exhibitions, but I really like the idea of people becoming more involved in the creation of such exhibitions. Yes, large institutions, especially those in the UK, receive funding from the government, but there is something very cool about having such a personal connection to an installation by choosing to contribute a sum of money, no matter how small.

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Straight, with the names of the earthquake victims on the wall behind

The exhibition charts a large portion of Ai Weiwei’s career, and features several of his large, recognisable works like, Grapes, Straight, photographs from his 1995 Dropping of a Han dynasty urn, a pair of jade handcuffs, and a massive bicycle chandelier commissioned for the space.

While many of his works active use humour, and display the amazing craftsmanship of artisanal techniques and historic materials- making them fun to look at and engaging to think about.  The two I found myself most affected by were Straight, and the 2012 work S.A.C.R.E.D.; Straight because of the heartbreaking source of the materials– rebar from the 2008 earthquake, and because of the unbelievable long list of names of the victims of the earthquake, largely children. S.A.C.R.E.D features six scenes from when the artist was held illegally by government authorities for over 80 days. Peeking into the large metal boxes that house them, the scenes are eerily real, yet almost unbelievable- making them all the more shocking.

I don’t usually opt for the audio guides, but I’d heard that the ones for this exhibition were particularly good, and they didn’t disappoint. With commentary about the history and background of the artist, there were clips of the artist himself featured, as well as additional photos and videos of some of the works, and a timeline of his history.

The visit wasn’t all serious– shortly before I took the photo above of Straight, a gentleman tripped over the corner, causing one of the pieces of rebar to roll a few inches away from the the whole, yet continued walking like nothing had happened. The work was virtually unharmed, thankfully, but it is interesting to think about what Ai Weiwei’s reaction would be to the incident.

The exhibition closes at the end of this next weekend (13 December) so if you are in the city and haven’t made a visit, I definitely recommend trying to fit it in before it closes.

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