Exhibition | Ai Weiwei: The Art of Dissidence

Ai Weiwei is China’s most influential and contentious artist whose political dissidence with his creative expression has brought about a celebrity status.

Weiwei’s works are saturated with a multitude of challenging themes that reflect over 20 years of his life. His artwork is a spectrum of sculptures, films, photographs and dioramas, all of which are imbued with revolutionary spirit through which he portrays his inner activist, thoughts on human rights and freedom of speech.

When entering the exhibition, the loud sound of groans of amusement and intrigue surrounding the art work speaks for itself, as people gather around one of Ai’s least innocuous constructions called Bed (2004).

Like most of his works, Bed is constructed from traditional methods of craftsmanship involving a mass of timbers made from dark, rich ironwood, creating the shape of an unfurled carpet, whose rigid edges actually trace the borders of China, perhaps a hidden depiction of China’s jagged past.

Many of Ai’s pieces especially from the Furniture series are made from ironwood derived from dismantled temples of Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The incorporation of traditional material and cultural meaning are an integral part of Ai Weiwei’s art as it suggests that his works are deeply imbibed with a sense of Chinese identity to which he is deeply connected.

The next gallery is a continuation of the Furniture series that reflects Ai’s interest in Chinese history and its culture.

At first glance, the objects bring about a sense of disturbance and confusion yet there’s a style of elegance in the way they are fashioned. It’s almost like watching a Chinese circus with acrobatic furniture attempting a somersault.

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight (2015) [Royal Academy of Arts]

You see conjoined tables with a pair of legs resting at a right angle against the walls. A Table with Two Legs on the Wall (1997) and Table with Three Legs (2011), both of which could be calling out China’s inability to be a balanced nation due to government suppression – one of the many underlying themes.

Hanging man (1985), is a metal coat hanger contorted into a profile portrait of Marcel Duchamp, an influential figure who inspired Ai’s fondness for redefining ordinary objects.

The artist’s indelible sculpture known as Straight (2008) is a memorial dedicated to the children who died in the Sichuan Earthquake. It is formed of 200 tonnes of hand straightened rebar that the artist inconspicuously reclaimed against the government’s wishes from the schools that were destroyed.

One cannot help but feel a pang of emotion caught in the throat when walking through a room filled with upsetting footage of wailing children from Ai’s film, Little Girl’s Cheeks, portraying the tragedy.

Throughout the provocative exhibition, materials significant to the Chinese traditions such as jade, porcelain, wood and marble are ubiquitous.

Sculptures such as He Xie (2011), which is a sea of porcelain crabs is unique and aesthetically pleasing. The green and red crabs clambering over one another, symbolic of the commemoration of his demolished studio in Shanghai.

There are sexual toys made from jade on showcase, marble lawns, Cao (2014), and dioramas speaking a story that has been silenced by the government, reflecting Ai’s plight during his 2011 imprisonment where he was detained for 81 days in a confined room.

After seeing so much injustice and emotion, it is a relief to come across the Duchampian Bicycle Chandelier (2015) at the end, signifying China’s modernisation; this is a beautifully constructed phenomenon with illuminating crystals hanging down from the rims of the wheels.

Ai Weiwei’s visionary art is made of creative expression fused with humanisation. It advocates freedom of speech and human values. At the end of it, one doesn’t just leave the exhibition the exhibition leaves with you.


Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy of Arts from September 19 until December 13, 2015.