Friday, October 02, 2015


The name itself sounds like a cry of anguish...Ay! Way! Way! He has every reason for anguish but he's not crying, at least not in public. In public he exhibits two perspectives: on one hand, a calm defiance of the monolithic, arthritic, despotic regime hidden behind his country's mask of modern progress. And on the other, a display of meticulously crafted objets d'art, mixing the materials of venerable ancient Chinese artefacts with irreverent attitudes of surrealism and conceptualism - shades of Duchamp, Magritte, Carl Andre and all.

The most valuable and moving piece in the exhibition, for me, is not an art object but a video: an effective and affecting piece of investigative journalism. It was filmed in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and documents the discovery, due to stubborn and painstaking examination of the ruins by Ai Weiwei and others, that the instant collapse of several schools in which hundreds of children died, was due to local authorities' corruption leading to lax building regulations and shoddy construction. Weiwei's response to the scandal was to buy tons of the mangled rebar, the "'useless bones of all those schools that collapsed". In his studio, workers pounded hundreds of the twisted metal bars straight and kept hammering even when he was imprisoned by the government for several months

After his release Wewei created, with 38 tons of those rusted rods, a respectful and defiant memorial to those lost children, titled Straight, of which he has said:
The tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence. We are spineless and cannot stand straight.
The problem I had when looking at this...installation...yes, that was exactly the problem. It had become an 'Installation' because of where it is shown: in a prestigious art institution. So the whole point of the memorial- its history, its meaning - has become merely a caption for an art object and its viewers are the people who go to art exhibitions. Does this make sense? Not to me. What would make sense would be if Straight was laid out in a public place in Sechuan where the children died, for example, or in front of government buildings in Beijing. But of course the Chinese authorities would never permit this. So the next best locations for exhibiting it would be...Well, you can see what I'm getting at.

I like Ai Wewei, I respect his integrity, his courage, patience and humour, his defiant stoicism in the face of the mental and physical hardships, injustice and repression he (and thousands of his unseen, unsung compatriots) have suffered, are suffering. I just wish he was as bold, unconventional and resourceful in his choice of venues for the display of his protest-works as he is in protesting.

Peering down into the several mini-tableaux which reproduce, half life-size, the actual cell in which Wewei was detained, along with the Chinese guards who watched his every moment, I couldn't help wondering, again, if this was the relevant place to show them. In the art gallery context they were reduced to rather ironic toy-scapes, even when you had read the explanation.

As for Ai Wewei's objets d'art in the exhibition, I must admit to being underwhelmed. The joke in this one is that the object lifting its legs at tradition is made from a traditional Qing Dynasty table. Get it?


Below, I think it's the caption which is the conceptual artwork rather than the cute paint-streaked vases. Those private collectors, did they buy because their vase was a Weiwei or because it was Han Dynasty or Neolithic? And did the price reflect one or the other? And
who is taking the mickey of whom?


The bicycle chandelier is rather beautiful, in the way that a twenty layer birthday cake made of sugar cobwebs would be beautiful but even the Chinese bicycle symbolism doesn't save it from being instantly forgotten (by me) once I've seen/eaten it.

Before I end this grumpy review, I want to apologise for it to Ai Wewei even though he surely won't be reading it. I'm truly glad that the Royal Academy is exhibiting his work, he deserves encouragement and support from every quarter, public and private. I sincerely wish him well and I hope that his country's leaders will come to their senses, in his lifetime, and recognize what he, and all the other exceptional individuals they have been tormenting and repressing, could do for China if they would only be given the freedom which is every human's right.


Jean said...

Like you I think, Natalie, I admire Ai Weiwei's courage, imagination and commitment more than his actual art in a gallery context. But I'm encouraged to make the effort to see this.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Jean, it's definitely worth seeing. It would be good to meet the man in person but there are some interesting videos of him on Youtube.

Roderick Robinson said...

There is, of course, a counter-argument (which I hasten to add I'm not espousing) that Ai's stuff contrasts more strongly with an environment created to celebrate life's fripperies. In any case where in the UK would you have preferred? The Tulse Hill dump?

I acknowledge the dilemma. Ideally artists (and especially novelists) should have no background since it clouds our judgment of what they've done. In Ai's case (yes I know, I'm being over-familiar) he's had a background imposed upon him and appears to have risen from it untouched. A good man but this is irrelevant. Think of Benvenuto Cellini.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I take your first point, Robbie.
But replying to this:
"In any case where in the UK would you have preferred? The Tulse Hill dump?"
Not Tulse Hill dump at all. More relevantly the offices of whichever government department is concerned with diplomatic/political/commercial relations with China.

I agree that whether an artist is a 'good person' or not is irrelevant when judging their work but in Wewei's case, he chooses to focus much of his work on exposing his country's human rights abuses. So whether those particular works can be judged in an art context at all is open to debate. Other things he makes (like examples above - the table, chandelier etc.) are indeed 'objets d'art' and, in my view, not interesting.

Hattie said...

He clicks with me as an artist, but like you I think this kind of art needs the right venue, which is not in a Museum but in public space.
Maya Lin has been fortunate in that her installations are always well placed, like her Oregon Trail series.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Hattie, yes. The problem in his case is that the relevant public spaces to show Weiwei's 'political' work would be Chinese public spaces, which they won't allow. Or else public spaces in the premises of governments or businesses who prefer not to mention Chinese authorities' abuses of human rights for business reasons.

Beth said...

Natalie, be grumpy all you want. Your remarks and questions make us think more deeply about this important artist and the political climate for art in general. I've been moved by his work - I liked (and was amazed by) the sunflower seed project and saw it at the Tate - and I am touched by "Straight", no matter where it is being shown. His politically-charged work is by far the best, IMHO. Did you see the video he did, shot by Laura Poitras, of the stuffed panda bear toys? Like you say, he's in a very difficult position because the work can't be shown where it should be, and one wonders if it has any impact at all on political leaders' thinking - either in China or in the West. I admire his courage and so far it seems like he hasn't succumbed to the limelight of prestigious art venues. I hope not.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Thanks Beth. I've seen the panda video - frightening stuff, so calmly and effectively presented.

" wonders if it has any impact at all on political leaders' thinking - either in China or in the West."

I doubt it, as long as it remains in the 'art' sphere and doesn't influence political/commercial decisions. Protests by individuals or groups, against outrages of all kinds, have rarely changed the minds and actions of those responsible until events conspire to make changes inevitable. Apartheid in S.Africa, for instance; or protest marches against the Iraq war, and so on. Nevertheless of course the protests must continue.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Natalie, thank you for one of the most thoughtful and intelligent reviews of this show that I’ve read. I haven’t seen it, but there was a major exhibition here in Berlin, not sure if it was the same one? Anyway, i was underwhelmed. The artist has been through terrible hardship and oppression but I’m not convinced he’s making great art. Some of it I find good, some rather flat and too obvious, but I hope he goes on to produce more rewarding work in the future!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Many thanks Phil. I don't think protesting and exposing injustice and cruelty necessarily needs to be great art, although some art has managed it (Goya, Picasso etc.) In Weiwei's case, I feel that his art-art hasn't found a form of expression that matches the spirit of his non-art protests (eg the video reportages). And the kind of Surrealist/Conceptualist irony he puts into some of his art objects just isn't powerful enough to meet the challenge that his Dissenter role demands.