Ai Weiwei: Political Art At Royal Academy

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 104 months ago

Last Updated 18 September 2015

Ai Weiwei: Political Art At Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts 5
Ancient meets modern as the traditional medium of marble is used to create the omnipresent CCTV camera. Copyright Ai Weiwei

There is a strong case to be made that Ai Weiwei is the most important artist operating in the world today — an artist who makes politically charged works and has endured horrendous treatment in making it.

The impact of his work can be felt in one of the largest galleries in this exhibition where the names of over 5,000 victims, largely schoolchildren, adorn the walls and surround visitors. These deaths resulted from a 2008 earthquake and in the centre of the gallery sit straightened iron rebars recovered from the wreckage; pointing out many of these deaths could have been avoided if it weren't for the shoddy construction of the buildings these people were in.

It's a powerful statement and a controversy that would have been swept under the carpet if not for Ai Weiwei bringing it to the world's attention — a clear sign of how vital his work is.

Also on display are the remains of his studio, that was demolished for spurious reasons and plenty of his sculptures that relate to the crossroads that China is facing as ancient tradition meets modern technology and consumerism. The Coca Cola logo is plastered across a neolithic vase and a CCTV camera has been cast in marble.

With all this highly politicised work it's easy to forget that Weiwei also has a playful side where tables are subverted to have legs on the floor and against the wall, and constructions are made from bicycle wheels and stools. There is plenty of this style of work on display in this comprehensive exhibition, which thankfully doesn't try to squeeze too much in, but allows each work the space to leave a lasting impact.

Another hard-hitting work is a series of scenes of Ai Weiwei's imprisonment — these large dioramas are within closed containers with only a few viewpoints for visitors to look through; making us voyeurs gaining insight into his rendition. It's unsettling to see guards watching him while he sleeps, showers and defecates.

Ai Weiwei is using art to change the world around him and this exhibition shows both the strength and breadth of his work. It's hard to think of any other artist with this level of impact, and this show of politically important and engaging art is impressive and inspiring.

Ai Weiwei is on at The Royal Academy of Arts until 13 December. Tickets are £16 for adults, concessions available. Also still on the Royal Academy is the last few weeks of Joseph Cornell.  Nearby is the excellent Silver and Gold at The British Museum.

For more exciting exhibitions see our top 10 picks for this autumn and September. There's still time to catch some of our most talked about exhibitions in August.

One of the most powerful works in the show as iron rebars recovered from earthquake rubble points out the shoddy construction of the buildings that collapsed. Copyright Ai Weiwei
Anicent vases get a gaudy decor as the modern world 'consumes' Chinese tradition. Copyright Ai Weiwei
The controversial print of Ai Weiwei dropping a Han dynasty urn - drawing attention to how many ancient artefacts are in fact fakes. Copyright Ai Weiwei
The playful side as a table morphs around a pole in an improbable creation. Copyright Ai Weiwei