Ai Weiwei at Royal Academy of Arts is not an alternative universe, nor an immersive world. It is not a solution to the craving for the spiritual that I have noticed in London during my visit this time. (Along with a trend for a sort of irritable cautiousness – but more on that another time.)
The work on display here is work made for museums, that is the scale that we are talking about, made from materials that could have been found in a museum – except they weren’t.
I am not even sure that they are old, but then I am not an expert.
Objects that he says were found or repurposed I suspect were mostly fabricated by the one of the several practitioners that he mobilizes to make his pieces. Joiners and furniture makers, marble, glass and jade workers, metal fabricators and ceramicists
So are they possessed with history? Yes. All the work here vibrates with the history and geography of China as much as it is concerned with the present and his current struggles. Struggles with the authorities, I mean. Not, as someone pointed out to me recently, with materials.
These struggles are important. Without these struggles with the authorities, what would remain? Their interventions are integral to his work. They are the lens that he offers us with which to view his output.
The eight hundred partygoers in his doomed architectural commission that turned the work into a ‘happening’ whilst Ai was held in prison overnight. The sculptural storyboard of his incarceration – detailed dioramas of humiliation and interrogation.
His critique of the authorities seems sincere but it is tinged with an impishness.
Where he seems to recede a little, lost behind and within works that are too minimal, too formal, he has written himself back into the story with new video documentaries. His strength, as we know, is in the force of his character, his personality, his sense of humour, his face even. He is most alive on Instagram.
Given that, maybe this venue is not such an ideal location for this artist and these works. The Royal Academy exhibition rooms underscore the seriousness of their contents and there isn’t much room for humour or dialogue. Maybe these things need windows to let the light in. (The exception that proves the rule, of course, is the annual and perennially easy breezy Summer Exhibition.)
Ai Weiwei invites scepticism. Remember the people who questioned at the time whether Ai really was detained by the Chinese authorities? Was it because the whole thing seemed so unreal in this day and age? Or did they wonder whether he was writing the next chapter of his own mythology?
I am not sure that this is really Ai’s work. By which I do not mean that it engages with issues of plagiarism and authorship, I simply think that his primary medium is the media. Or maybe his real work is the merchandise in the shop.
But here, back in the gallery, one of the other visitors earnestly listening to their audio guide mutters: “Just because he is famous. Just because he is famous.” I am not sure exactly what they mean but I feel that Ai has deliberately left some gaps for us to be sceptical about. He wants us to talk about his work, to argue over whether Chinese art is political enough, to question what is real and unreal. And in the silence, after the pot hits the floor, you can hear him laughing.