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Ai Weiwei’s galvanising new show

The artist, architect and activist at the Royal Academy in London

Marion Coutts | October 6th 2015

Outside China, Ai Weiwei is an art superstar and his exhibitions proliferate across the globe. His installation “Sunflower Seeds”, where he filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with millions of hand-crafted porcelain seeds, was a major draw in 2010. Inside China it is different. From an official viewpoint, he is seen variously as a critic, a troublemaker and a criminal and his work and references to it are curtailed. In the recent past he has been in detention, on trial, beaten up, under house arrest and left without a passport. From his current show at the Royal Academy in London, Ai emerges as a meticulous multitasker: artist, architect and activist.

You need to be meticulous to be an accurate witness and his piece “S.A.C.R.E.D” (2012, above) is a pivotal work, a series of dioramas built inside steel tanks that draw on his experience of detention in 2011. Ai was imprisoned for over 80 days and accompanied at all times—sleeping, eating, shitting and showering—by two guards. The petty details of this environment, including shampoo, soap, steel bed and noisy fan, are reproduced at half size with himself and his guards in effigy. It’s a deliberately uncanny scale to work with, not exactly miniaturised and too clunky to be a model. Sticky tape covers the walls, chairs, sink and toilet in emulation of the plastic that wrapped each fixture in the cell. It is a basement for sadists. There is a deep and deliberate obscenity to the work, visible only through slots set in doors or ceiling. “S.A.C.R.E.D” has the canon of Western art in its sights and the six scenes of Ai’s degradation point heavily to the Stations of the Cross. Ai is not modest.

On this showing, he has no reason to be. The exhibition is a spectacular collection of objects, sculptures, installations and films. The show is rammed and sometimes you wish for less. The pieces in ceramic and marble, with which he has worked since the mid-1990s, are the weakest. A Coca-Cola logo is painted onto an antique vase. Historic vases are pulverised and their dust stored neatly in jars. One of his early signature pieces, the three-part photo work called “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995), does just what it says on the urn. The reaction is a frisson of cultural vandalism, but it’s a limited shock. Ai likes to work with highly gifted craftsmen, and you find yourself paying more attention to the exquisite display cabinets.

The real heft of his work lies elsewhere, and if you go to the show you should make time for the videos. Presented as single screens in rooms next to more flamboyant sculptures, they can seem incidental. A video called “Straight” (2015) is shown next to a vast installation of the same name, which is made of rebar, the metal rods that internally support concrete buildings. Recycling for Ai is a political act. After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai illegally salvaged the chewed and mangled rods. In a blacksmiths’ marathon he had each piece straightened by hand and the results laid out in seismic layers as a vast floor piece. It is sombre and staggering in scale and its great rusting slide might situate it as a minimalist work or a reference to land art.

The video comes at the earthquake from a different angle. It documents the ghastly local backstory: a natural disaster, mass deaths, widespread corruption in the construction industry, buildings made from junk concrete. The same clear, forensic, investigative force runs through the video and the straightened metal rebar. The linkage is placed front and centre. You’ve seen the sculpture; now see the movie. The video is not particularly polished. It is intended as a matter of record and the first seconds are harrowing as you watch vain attempts to thump air into the bodies of children pulled from these buildings. It spins you hard into the world beyond.

In parallel is a work called “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” (2008–11). This is a printed list of the names of the schoolchildren who died in the earthquake and it covers two walls of the main room from floor to ceiling.

Ai’s gift, increasingly, is for galvanising people and this is brought out in his video “The Crab House” (2015). In 2010 the local authorities invited Ai to design and build a studio-house outside Shanghai, hoping to annex his star quality to bring cultural regeneration to a rural area. Once built, and before he could move in, central office countermanded the order, demolished the studio and razed it to the ground. Even the rubble was removed. Destroying evidence is an ancient practice. But evidence comes in many forms. Through social media Ai called a party to celebrate the fleeting existence of the studio. He himself, under house arrest, was banned from going, but over 800 Twitter followers did. “The Crab House” documents the saga: construction, legal wrangling, demolition and party.

It is telling that in such a sculptural display, the two most memorable images come from this piece and both are superficially slight. The first is of steaming plates of fresh crab and greens going round in a clandestine feast of flash-mob activism. The second comes after nightfall, in the embers of the party. Young men are dancing around a campfire. From all sides of the ring, they jump the fire. It’s a scene of pure celebration by people who shouldn’t be there: an exhilarating, timeless image that points forward and back. Ai himself is not there, but here are the young. Taking risks. Jumping over the flames.

Ai Weiwei Royal Academy, London, until December 13th