I am still deeply immersed in the experience that was Ai Weiwei’s monumental show at The Royal Academy. This is an exhibition that goes to the very core of what an artist can be – powerful on multiple levels: compassionate, compelling, inclusive, thought-provoking, engaged and engaging. The works span a breadth of vision that I have been digesting in increments: comments on aesthetics, symbolism, craftsmanship, the evolution of society and culture, freedom of expression and consumerism. I would point those interested in finding out more to these excellent reviews in The Guardian and in The Creative Review.
I had no intention of writing anything yet I feel I must share these few thoughts. Unusually for this type of show and institution, The Royal Academy encouraged visitors to take pictures, embracing Weiwei’s massive presence on social media, the profound sense of community and justice present within his body of work, and its global accessibility via the net. As an artist and citizen who strives for independent thinking in an environment which regularly seeks to hinder that dialogue, he ‘speaks’ to us all. And this in turn seems to give us all permission to speak, whether we are on social media or not. Everyone who has seen it is still talking about this show.
In response to the overwhelming nature of the exhibition and in the certainty that others have captured the bigger picture I focused my mobile on bite-sized snippets, edited down to Instagram squares. There they sit on the Armadillo Central account, not without irony (another theme within the show) next to some of our ‘products’, a further comment on the fine balance between aesthetics and consumption, a topic which Weiwei also tackles with assurance and wit.
The 11 galleries which house the Weiwei exhibition explore different themes – moving the viewer through a whole range of powerful thoughts and emotions, which then linger, raising more, and surely this is the greatest achievement that any artist can aspire to. The exhibits also, in the words of Adrian Locke, curator, “represent a coherent exploration of Chinese culture, history and material and, alongside Ai’s relentless campaigning for free speech and human rights, have been instrumental in establishing him as an artist of international standing.”
Outside in the RA courtyard, Weiwei has created a small forest of trees reconstructed from old trunks and branches brought down from the mountains of southern China. These were transported to the artist’s Beijing studio where they were individually put together for this installation, the largest of its kind to date. As he puts it, “it’s just like trying to imagine what the tree looked like”. It’s a simple thought and yet it’s complicated. ‘Tree’ “has been likened to the modern Chinese nation, where ethnically diverse peoples have been brought together to form ‘One China’, a state-sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” – Adrian Locke. The point about Tree for me, indeed the whole show, is not just this underlying comment but the resonance that this work (and all the others in their own way) carries on other levels – in the case of Tree, the force of nature, the cycle of life, the symbolism embedded in trees in general, their inherent majesty, their solid trunks, these leafless branches – concepts which bind us all beyond any national or social borders. We are proud that one of our artists, Jennifer Copley-May contributed to the Kickstarter project which brought Tree to the UK.
If you’re in London this weekend I urge you to go. These are the last 3 days and the Royal Academy of Arts galleries are, exceptionally, open for a full 56 hours non-stop from 10am today, 11 December to 6pm on Sunday 13 December. Don’t miss it.
Words and images © Emma Boden / Armadillo Central 2015