Ai Weiwei at the RA making political art

Ai Weiwei makes daring art. His work is radical; it questions and confronts political and social issues. The Chinese artist has spent time in jail in China, and has been placed under house arrest. Yet Ai remains one of the country’s most famous contemporary figures. The Art Review named him the second most influential figure in the art world, and if social media numbers are to be taken seriously, then he commands rock star status.

And he does not stop. Having only just been allowed to leave China to attend his first major exhibition in the UK, on being refused a bulk order of Lego bricks – on the grounds that the company didn’t want their product to be used for political reasons – a short call on social media prompted hundreds of thousands to donate their own Lego collections to Ai.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm © Ai Weiwei

So the artist diverged from his original plan and created a new work based on the physical collection points in cities all over the world for the donated bricks. Incidentally, the original installation Ai had in mind was on the subject of free expression. There must have been some serious finger pointing at the Lego HQ in Denmark!

Of course there have been many political artists in history. The 19th century Spanish painter Goya’s powerful work, depicting the horrors of war, still command a visceral reaction, as does Picasso’s brilliant critique of the Spanish Civil War in his 1937 Guernica. Later in the 70s and 80s artists like Gilbert & George tackled issues of sexuality and class with graphic clarity.

Ai Weiwei's Bicycle Chandelier 2015

Yet recent artists, especially here in the west, have arguably become more and more self-absorbed which is why it was hugely refreshing to visit Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts. This exhibition, which ended in December, revealed the sheer power of art to question, provoke and raise awareness.

This is something that resonates with us here at Spinach as we are always looking at ways to delve deeper into the brand, the product, the subject. Our work, though by no means political, has to create a reaction, initiate a conversation, stand out from the crowd and be memorable.

Political art often be almost kitsch with its execution and delivery… be too much like a slogan. Not with Ai’s work. Visiting the RA, you could not help but be profoundly moved by his commentary on complex histories, value of material, the fragility of life, of human and historical loss.

Ai Weiwei outside the Royal Academy of Arts London

Ai’s work is full of contrasts and contradictions. They are at once robust and fragile, awkward and meticulously crafted, brutal and beautiful. The making reflects the message. Ai sculpts handcuffs from the precious jade, scribbles the Coca Cola logo on an ancient vase, and smashes another in a photographic sequence as a note on history, value, life.

He’s an artist, a poet, an architect and urbanist, a writer and blogger, a curator and an activist. He keeps extending the notion of art, and this is hugely inspiring for us at Spinach. His art, films and writing collectively express his vision. The Serpentine Galley co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him the ‘renaissance artist’.

Straight, 2008-12. Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm Lisson Gallery, London

At the start of this year Ai set up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos to highlight the plight of refugees on their main point of entry into the EU.  ‘As an artist, I have to relate to humanity’s struggles,’ he told reporters, ‘I never separate these situations from my art.’

Ai reminds us that today, possibly more than ever, we need art with a conscience. He says we are a part of the reality ‘and if we don’t realise that, we are totally irresponsible.’

The RA was packed on the random weekday afternoon we visited, young and old navigating the show with evident curiosity. They absorbed the written descriptions, mostly had hired the vocal guides and, unlike most exhibitions, not a whisper could be heard. Observing Ai’s work, you can’t help but be silenced.

Nargess Banks


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