Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is as well known for his art as for his activism.
A steadfast critic of the Chinese government, Ai has been denied a passport for over four years and has been unable to leave or exhibit work in his native country.
Recently Weiwei posted a photograph online of him holding up his newly returned passport and announced that he has also been granted an extended six-month visa to visit the UK, which he will coordinate with his Royal Academy retrospective.
On the 19th of September 2015, The Royal Academy will host the first major retrospective of his work, showing works from his entire oeuvre. From the smashing of a Han Dynasty vase (which will appear in the show), to the poignant critique of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed over 5,000 Chinese children, Weiwei’s work is bold, controversial and unforgiving.
All the works in this show have all been created since 1993, the date when Weiwei returned to his native China from America. This exhibition will show works that have never before been seen in this country, and many have been created specifically for this venue, Weiwei navigating the space digitally from China.
Often labeled as an activist or a political artist, this social conscience is what has influenced most of his works to date. Living under constant imminent threat from those with absolute authority, Weiwei’s work is created out of adversity and struggle. His oppressors are ones who are able to work above and therefore outside the law, and for that reason his struggle is a very real one. Despite this, Weiwei will not be defeated, and continues to critique the government and its actions towards the Citizens of his beloved China.
In a career spanning over three decades, his hand has also been turned to: activism, architecture, publishing, and curation, in a tour de force of creative activity. The artist worked alongside Herzog & de Meuron (the same company to design the Tate Modern in 1995) to design the 2008 Beijing National Olympic Stadium (commonly known as the Birdsnest). This project was born from a building Ai designed nine years before, when he needed a new studio, and decided to simply build it himself.
This confident disregard for convention is the attitude with which he approaches all of his work, and it has gained him many critics. The most notable of which being the Chinese government themselves, who have arrested him, seized his assets, terrified his wife and child, tracked him daily, tapped his phones, and rescinded his passport.
Perhaps most well known for his Sunflower Seeds artwork, in which he filled Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. Each seed was hand crafted and painted by hundreds of Chinese citizens from the city of Jingdezhen, in a process that took many years. Visitors to the show were overwhelmed to see the vast expanse of seeds, and were originally invited to walk and sit upon them, interacting with the work in a way in which we are rarely allowed to. (For safety reasons this was later disallowed)
The sunflower seeds appeared uniform but upon close inspection revealed themselves to be minutely unique, created using centuries-old techniques that have been passed down through generations.
In the Chinese culture sunflowers are extremely important, Chairman Mao would use the symbology of the sunflower to depict his leadership, himself being the sun, whilst those loyal to his cause were the sunflowers. In Weiwei’s opinion, sunflowers supported the whole revolution, both spiritually and materially. In this artwork, Weiwei supported an entire village for years, as well as creating something that promotes an interesting dialogue about the very culture that created it.
Weiwei’s work is about people, about the often nameless many who are oppressed or ignored. It is about justice for those who have been abandoned or neglected by those who are there to protect them, and it is most primarily about their basic human rights.
It is tragically ironic that those human rights that he has worked so tirelessly to protect for others are those denied him by his own government.
The Royal Academy has turned to Crowdfunding to help raise £100,000 to bring the centerpiece of the exhibition to Britain. Weiwei’s reconstituted Trees will sit in the exterior courtyard and be free to view for all. The campaign has just over a week left and still needs to raise just over 25% of its target.
Get involved here
The show will be on between
September 19th – December 13th 2015
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
All images courtesy of Royal Academy