Ai Weiwei @ Royal Academy of Art, London

Review by Matthew Retallick | 05 Nov 2015

It’s Friday 23 October and I'm sat on a train from Manchester to London; I'm travelling to see an exhibition of work by China’s most recognisable artist, Ai Weiwei. I glance through a tattered newspaper to learn that Xi Jinping, China’s president, is due to tour Manchester, in all its glorious Northern Powerhouse potential, later that day. Protests are expected due to China’s questionable human rights record. Ai Weiwei is an artist who has openly condemned China’s apparent disregard for human rights and free speech, and who in 2011 was notoriously imprisoned by the Chinese authorities for “inciting subversion of state power.”

I have been looking forward to this exhibition for some time. It seems to me long overdue, putting aside the curious Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace last year. Fortunately, this survey of his work turns out to be graceful and deeply pertinent, with an often hair-raising lightness of touch in curation.

One work is particularly breathtaking in its rust-covered enormity. Straight (2008-12) is displayed across the floor of one gallery, and is composed in 90 tonnes of meticulously stacked steel reinforcing bars. The bars were originally twisted and warped in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and have been straightened once again by a workforce of 100 people. The result is haunting and solemn, holding the echoes of those lives destroyed.

Ai Weiwei is very much at his best when he introduces his ideas through clever and subtle interventions. In another gallery we see a procession of bright, simply painted Coloured Vases from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). These valuable and ancient antiques are appropriated into works of artistic commodity, and raise questions about how we value history and ideas, the intervention of the artist's hand increasing the value dramatically.

China’s state capitalism is further examined in a crossover of art and heritage with several sculptures created in influential materials. These imposing cubes, such as A Ton of Tea (2011) for example, ape familiar minimalist works, this one in particular formed of compressed Pu-erh tea, the block a traditional method of transporting and trading tea from hundreds of years ago.

Ai Weiwei is an artist demonstrative of trial over adversity and is fast becoming a household name worldwide. His work is clever, revealing and often shocking. The RA exhibition skilfully dodges making this exhibition into a personality sideshow and instead addresses important political questions. If you can cope with the crowds, this astute exhibition is not to be missed.

From the Archive: Alison Klayman on her Ai Weiwei documentary Never Sorry

Until 13 Dec