The floor is covered with massive rusted iron reinforcing bars, neatly arranged, parallel to one another. Viewed from above, they form a sort of rolling landscape of hills and valleys. But it is a terrain spit by a sharp discontinuity – a fault line – running half way through it. Look again, and those hills could be vibrating with shock waves.
This is “Straight” (2008-9), one of the most powerful works in the career retrospective by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy, London. If it looks like a land convulsed by some cataclysm, that’s probably intentional. Those iron bars were extracted from buildings that had collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of May 12 2008, and then carefully re-straightened in Ai Weiwei’s studio (hence the title).
About 90,000 people died that day, including a large number of children – due, it was widely believed, to the poor building standards of public buildings such as schools (constructed, according Chinese street speak, from materials as feeble as tofu). The names of 5,000 pupils who were crushed under flimsy classrooms are inscribed around the walls of the gallery.
“Straight” and its accompanying work, “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens Investigation” (2008-11) represent the complexity and force of Ai Weiwei’s art at its best. His influences are eclectic, garnered from both east and west.
Formally, a piece such as “Straight” reminds you of American minimalists, particularly Carl André, the first to make art by arranging metal on the floor. And indeed, Ai Weiwei was profoundly affected by the 12 years he spent in the US from 1981, both politically and artistically.
He claims his fundamental influence to have been Marcel Duchamp (a witty homage to the inventor of the ready-made, in the form of a coat-hanger bent into the aquiline contours of Duchamp’s profile, is the only work in the show from prior to Ai’s return to China in 1993). But Duchamp wasn’t particularly interested in making massively sculptural works, and Ai clearly is. When he does so, as with “Straight,”the inspirations tend to be American artists who were prominent in the 1960s and 1970s – that is, just before Ai arrived in Manhattan.
Formally speaking, at least from outside, “S.A.C.R.E.D.” (2012) looks at first glance like something derived from the school of Richard Serra. Externally it consists of a set of big oxidized iron tanks. But there is a fundamental difference. Inside, Ai Weiwei has put – quite literally – his own life and suffering. Peer though little openings in those metallic boxes, and you see tableaux of the artist’s existence during the 81 days of imprisonment he endured in 2011. There is Ai, handcuffed and being interrogated, supervised by guards when taking a shower, on the toilet, sleeping in his cell.
This is his most powerful creation to date. But the strategy – inserting his own life, political protest, and culture into an idiom devised by New York modernists – recurs again and again. Several of his earlier pieces recall Richard Artschwager’s transformations of furniture into art and Gordon Matta-Clark’s slicing up of architectural spaces. Again, however, the content is different: partly autobiographical, partly to do with the jarring collision of traditional Chinese culture and the contemporary world. This helps explain why he apparently made little during his 12 years in the U.S. He didn’t have much new to say in terms of form; the novelty is expressing Oriental themes and feelings into this Occidental language.
When he made furniture into sculpture, such as “Table with Three Legs” (2011) the raw material was antique woodwork from the Qing dynasty. That is, objects that spoke of the Imperial and Confucian past, but chopped up and reconfigured into a novel shape.
Famously, he photographed himself “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1996), an ancient object which was smashed to pieces. Other pieces consist of Han and Neolithic ceramics painted with the bright shades of color field abstraction (or a shop sign). He inscribed the Coca Cola logo on an 1800 year old vase. Of course, the point is that what Ai does to a few pots (of which numerous duplicates exist), is happening to the whole nation: abrupt modernization and, in the cultural revolution, deliberate destruction.
Is Ai Weiwei the most important contemporary Chinese artist? To paraphrase the words of Zhou Enlai when asked the consequences of the French Revolution: it’s too early to say. There are others, particularly painters, whose work may have staying power. But Ai is unique in the way he spans east and west, in his personal bravery and capacity to command a global audience. His work is uneven, and consequently so is this exhibition. At his best he is at once witty, chilling and compelling.
First published by Blouin Artinfo