The bold vision of Ai Weiwei's art looks forward to a future beyond the control of the Communist Partyby Isabel Hilton / August 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
In what will be one of London’s biggest art shows this autumn, Ai Weiwei, China’s most internationally celebrated conceptual artist, activist, photographer, architect and thorn in the flesh of the Communist Party, will be honoured at the Royal Academy with a one-man show. Few artists have received this accolade, and the exhibition is a tribute to an artist whose range of ideas and bold vision have made him one of contemporary art’s most important figures.
His achievement is unrivalled at home, though it risks being overshadowed abroad by his political reputation. His critique of contemporary China through art, sculpture and the online documentation of his life has deep roots in China’s culture and aesthetic. He succeeds as an artist-provocateur by showing us his vision of a new China through his creative ideas, dark satire, philosophical and political commentary, and “social sculpture” sometimes involving thousands of people. For the forthcoming Royal Academy show, several tons of steel bars from the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake have been straightened and shipped. At the Tate in 2010, 100m ceramic sunflower seeds were individually painted by 1,600 craftspeople in China. In 2014, there was a huge solo exhibition in Berlin involving 6,000 wooden stools. Each of these contain both a critique of China’s current political system and look forward to the possibility of change in the future.
Ai’s work is not universally admired and clearly some of his ideas will last longer than others. Some of his more Rabelaisian jokes—the naked artist giving the finger to various centres of power, including Beijing’s Forbidden City—will survive, if at all, as evidence of an occasionally adolescent sense of humour. Some critics have complained that his ideas are repetitious and his work uneven. But it is difficult to imagine the history of contemporary China failing to include a chapter on Ai Weiwei. And he is more than simply a dissident artist to be valued for his political position: his work is original and provocative, especially in his use of online media.
Until late last month it seemed as if Ai would be unable to attend his own London show: the Chinese authorities had withheld his passport since his release from an 81-day detention in 2011. On 22nd July, however, he posted a picture of his returned passport…