Ai WeiWei Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts London | Yellowtrace

 

Like many of you, I’ve been incredibly intrigued about the work of Ai Weiwei – a cultural phenomenon and one of China‘s (if not the world’s) most influential artists. I was so incredibly excited to discover that a major retrospective of his work opened only days before we arrived to attend the London Design Festival. Jackpot!

The elegant rooms of London’s  and Ai Weiwei’s brave and visionary works are a perfect match. The exhibition itself is politically charged, provocative, powerful and poetic in equal measure, made even better by the accompanying audio and video narrative handed out to each visitor on arrival. I was floored and walked around the gallery in awe, with chills running down my spine almost the entire time. I felt inspired, elated, informed, angry, confused, shocked, teary and everything in between. You’ll have to agree that it’s quite rare to feel a multitude of so many different emotions in a single exhibition. To this end, I have to be perfectly frank here – due to it’s prominence and the gravity of topics tackled in this exhibition, I find it incredibly intimidating to try and capture the essence of these works, so please be kind, ok? I ain’t no art expert, after-all.

 

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

‘Untitled’ (on walls) and ‘Bed’ (on floor), made from reclaimed Qing Dynasty timber using traditional Chinese cabinetry methods. As an added layer of meaning, ‘Bed’ represents an unfolding profile of a map of China. Ai Weiwei also sees the bed as an incredibly important object, as we are birthed in it, it’s the place of rest, sleep, love-making, and also where we die. Ummm… I don’t know about you, but at this point I already had goosebumps.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Repurposed stools and more Qing Dynasty timber turned into an impossibly complex 3D puzzle, put together by Ai Weiwei’s team of highly skilled Chinese craftsmen.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace
“Straight, 2008–2012”. The devastating Sichuan earthquake on 12 May 2008 measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, leaving over 90,000 people dead or missing, and rendering another 11 million people homeless. Upon discovering that the collapse of 20 poorly constructed schools claimed the lives of many school children, Ai clamoured for the government to admit that corruption had enabled builders to ignore safety codes when building the schools, and to publish the names and the tally of the children who perished. His pleas were met with silence. Ai documented the substandard quality of the collapsed schools by diligently collecting and utilising their steel rebars in “Straight, 2008–2012”. This 200-tonne installation memorialises the students lost in the earthquake.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace
The artist employed craftsmen to heat and then straighten each piece of earthquake-twisted steel, manually restoring them to their pre-disaster condition. At face value, viewers might think that nothing had ever happened to the bars, had it not been for Weiwei’s inclusion of an apparent ground fissure in the installation and the artwork’s noticeable resemblance to the Richter scale.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace
Motivated by the government’s refusal to release any information about earthquake casualties to the public, Ai created the Citizens’ Investigation project in December 2008, seeking to identify the names of the school children killed in the earthquake, using his influential blog as a vehicle. Two hundred civil volunteers responded to Ai’s call, going door-to-door to speak to parents in the region. The artist posted on his blog whatever information they uncovered, and ultimately compiled a list of 5,192 names of children. On the walls on either side of the “Straight” sculpture are panels with printed names of the 5,192 school children who lost their lives in the quake. Indeed, the tears were flowing at this point, and I was not the only one.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace
Spurred by his belief that ‘the worst tragedy is disrespect for life’, Ai also visited the earthquake site and took photographs shown on the walls of the gallery alongside “Straight”.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Left: “Souvenir from Shanghai, 2012”, made from concrete and brick rubble salvaged from the artist’s Shanghai studio destroyed by the government. Right: “He Xie, 2011”, made from 3,000 porcelain crabs. Both pieces are deeply symbolic and stand in defiance of governmental attempts to quash individual freedom of expression.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace
Coloured Vases, 2015, are Neolithic urns that the artist intentionally defaces and transforms by irreversibly painting over them. “You call it being destroyed. I’m not like the Taliban; their hatred destroys things. I think I change the form; it’s just a different way to interpret the form,” said the artist in his conversation with RA.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Left: Detail of “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995” triptych of black-and white prints showing the artist braking a priceless antique vessel. Right: Shelf with glass jars containing ground Neolithic Urns. In this series, Ai simultaneously challenged tradition, heritage and the urn’s implicit values; proposing that transformed precious object become a new form of artwork.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

“Fragments” transforms salvaged timber taken from Qing Dynasty temples into a monumental installations. At first glance the works appear chaotic, but from above the artist has recreated a unique 3D map of the intricate borders of China, commenting on the fragility of the country’s foreign relations.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace
A carved-marble gas mask, like a deaths-head emerging from a tomb, relates to the perpetual pollution experienced in the Chinese capital city.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Left: “Surveillance Camera, 2010″, depicts the same type of hand-held video camera that observed the artist and his visitors 24hr a day since 2009. Right: ‘”Marble Pram” and “Cao” (meaning grass), which is a also a pun on the Chinese pronunciation of ‘cao’ (meaning f*ck off).
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Ai Weiwei exploration of ‘The Cubic Meter’ using four different mediums – timber carving, clear resin (both shown), tea and timber cabinet.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Ai WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | YellowtraceAi WeiWei Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Photo © Nick Hughes | Yellowtrace

Above and Left: “S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011–13” is a six-part work composed of six dioramas housed in fibreglass and steel boxes with viewing holes that recreate Ai Weiwei’s detailed memories of the time he spent in the prison cell. The six letters in the title denote Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy and Doubt, which refer respectively to eating, interrogation, showering, walking, sleep and using the toilet. Right: Monumental ‘Bicycle Chandelier, 2015’ made especially for RA from Forever bicycles, China’s most popular brand since 1940.
Photography © Nick Hughes/ Yellowtrace.

 

Curated in collaboration with Ai Weiwei from his studio in Beijing, RA present some of his most important works from the time the artist returned to China from the US in 1993, right up to present day. Among these are new works created specifically for the RA galleries and courtyard, including a number of large-scale installations, as well as works showcasing everything from marble and steel, to tea and glass. The chosen works explore a multitude of bold and challenging themes, drawing on Ai Weiwei’s own experience and commenting on creative freedom, censorship and human rights, as well as examining contemporary Chinese art and society.

A key piece from the show is ‘Straight, 2009-12′, visualised as an undulating terrain consisting of 200-tonnes of steel reinforcement salvaged from a devastating earthquake that struck the Sichuan provence in China in 2008, claiming the lives of more than 5,000 children, mostly due to poor building practice. Chilling.

For those of you lucky enough to find yourself in London, this exhibition is a must. And if this is not the case, I hope you will find today’s images informative and inspiring.


19 September — 13 December 2015

 

Related Post: #YellowtraceTravels: London Design Festival 2015.

 

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[All images © Nick Hughes / Yellowtrace.]

 



About The Author

Dana Tomić Hughes
Founder & Editor

Dana is an award-winning interior designer living in Sydney, Australia. With an unhealthy passion for design, Dana commits to an abnormal amount of daily design research. Regular travel and attendance at premier design events, enables Dana to stay at the forefront of the design world globally. While she is super serious about design, Dana never takes herself - nor design - too seriously. Together with her life and business partner, Dana is Boss Lady at Studio Yellowtrace, specialising in Design Strategy, Creative Direction and Special Projects. The studio takes a highly conceptual and holistic approach to translating brands & ideas into places & experiences.

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