Ai Weiwei is the world’s most famous living artist, but is this entirely because of his art? More people know of him as a fearless scourge of the Chinese government than have ever seen a single one of his works. So the very least achievement of the Royal Academy (which has had to watch in horror as Ai managed to get a visa to travel from China only to fall foul of our own asinine immigration service) is to set forth an enormous array of his sculptures, installations and films for the first time before a British public.
Ai’s gift is for the humanisation of conceptual art. Marcel Duchamp was his god as a student in New York in the 1980s – a coat hanger bent into the shape of Duchamp’s profile, the hook forming a question mark, is a deft homage – and the ready-made remains his regular medium. Bicycles, humdrum symbols of Chinese daily life, are suspended in silver clusters to make a soaring chandelier. Qing dynasty tables, reconfigured by master craftsmen, become martial arts fighters: two legs planted on the floor and two against the wall as if straining against the pressure of tradition.
A cluster of Qing stools, strung together and spiralling upwards like a sputnik or diadem, invokes the people of the past in a beautiful new form. Each work has its deep local meaning but each is an emblematic gathering of souls, of human communities as opposed to communism.
Ai remakes the ready-made, but also the destroyed. The cycling artist is the great recycler. Ancient carved-wood fragments are massed into a kind of catafalque for the dead (though with discreet handles for a gymnast to swing upon, a typically upbeat addition). What is compacted in this massive block is not just Chinese wood but Chinese culture: the curlicues of demolished temples, the fragments of old houses, old furniture, the elements of people’s lives – and their livelihoods.
One of the most dramatic works here is a bricked-up temple – or so it appears. Chunks of wall jammed into a carved-wood facade are not in fact ancient but poignantly modern: the remnants of Ai’s studio near Shanghai, demolished by the Chinese government before it was even completed on specious planning charges in 2011. The story of Ai’s own struggle runs through this show from first to last, with films about the demolition, his house arrest and the crab dinner he threw to mark the destruction, which was attended by a thousand guests (though not by the artist, again detained by police).
A heap of porcelain crabs silting up one corner of the Royal Academy – a lone hero crab climbing free of the rest – marks the occasion once more. As Sean Scullyremarks in the catalogue, Ai is modestly immodest.
The activism and the art are one, Ai has said; and almost all the art in this show speaks to the conditions of Chinese life. Over the years, Ai has employed a vast team of compatriots to expand this point. Who can forget the tide of sunflower seeds stretching across the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in their millions, each handmade in porcelain and each unique, every worker made to count. The opening room of this show is hung with radiant silver rings – 14 of them, large and shining, reprising the lunettes of the Royal Academy’s architecture but with an ultramodern industrial look that transports you to the mass-production factory far away where they were made. This is Ai at his subtlest, his speech both global and local. For although they look like mysterious planets, these rings, in their build-up of internal rims, describe the topography of China.
This show is variable. Ai has part-ownership of a marble quarry and has for several years employed masons to recreate contemporary objects in stone. Marble handcuffs, marble lipsticks, marble pushchair: the transformations go two ways. Some things are elevated while others turn absurd, such as the surveillance camera constantly trained on Ai’s home rendered sightless and impotent in marble. But Ai repeats the trope so often that its weaknesses are readily exposed.
There is a lot of renovated pop here – Chinese vases dipped in high-chrome paint, Coca-Cola crassly inscribed on a 2,000-year-old bowl (raising the obvious question of whether the artefact would now be more or less valuable). Presumably this must have special significance to Chinese viewers, but it feels otherwise commonplace. Over at Tate Modern, in their new show The World Goes Pop, dozens of artists in Mexico to Japan were doing something nearly identical back in the 60s. Coke, Hoover, Nissan, nuclear warheads, the cold war, the objectification of women – the targets were consistent, the techniques of collage, screen-printing, soft sculptures and shrill photo-based painting universal. The curators have even found Ukrainian examples in what amounts to a research project in three very banal dimensions. Pop, as if we didn’t know it, became a convenient megaphone for propaganda.
One vitrine in Ai’s show contains the bones of an intellectual who died in one of Mao’s labour camps – or rather, the bones cast in bronze and painted in exact facsimile. The commemoration lies in that (invisible) transformation. It must at least be acknowledged that the act of honouring the dead is as important as the art itself – perhaps more so. The deed is what counts. In some respects, what’s on show at the Royal Academy are the relics of a lifetime’s performance art.
It is no surprise that the strongest works here are the largest – Ai is at his best on a grand scale – and the most searingly political. The potency of Straight, his commemoration of the 5,000 children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that shattered their jerry-built schools, lies mainly in his devotional act of straightening by hand 90 tonnes of twisted metal collected from the ruins of the schools. Tides of rusting bars form a welling landscape on the floor, somewhere between gently undulating hills and a landslide.
It is a solemn and poignant commemoration, as if one could roll back time. Though what really mattered to the people of Sichuan was the way Ai used his world-famous blog to try and name both the victims and the officials involved in the deadly construction that brought these schools to instant collapse.
Ai’s blog was shut down (though many entries have been published in a book) and he was later illegally incarcerated for 81 days. Six rusting tanks in the final gallery give us something of this experience. Peer through a grille and what you see in each is a diorama of the cell, half life-sized, featuring Ai and two guards in effigy. Silent and watchful, the guards march him up and down the cramped space, stand over him as he eats and sleeps, scrutinise him in the shower (one squinting critically at his manhood), menacing him with intimate surveillance.
It is a brilliant and frightening work, his confinement evoked in the claustrophobic reduction that allows you to become both a witness and a spy, embarrassed and appalled. And it is the essence of Ai’s activism: a work that simultaneously documents an act of state brutality in a spirit of defiant freedom, a work that unleashes the political power of art.