It is the first room that captures the imagination in Ai Weiwei’s striking, frequently spectacular exhibition at the Royal Academy. To reach it, first you must pass through a thicket of reconstructed trees, each clamped into place by rusting iron girders in the RA courtyard. A counter to these snarling, twisted, fairy tale forms, the opening room eschews theatricality to thrilling effect. In the small entrance gallery, an assembly of straightened steel rods on the floor creates a rippling, seismographic pattern evocative of the contours of the Chinese landscape.
Co-curated with Ai himself, an architectural approach to all aspects of the exhibition draws threads between works from 1993 to the present. This architectural emphasis plays predominantly with scale; smaller, more intricate works ebb and flow throughout the exhibition, interspersed with room-filling installations. The year 1993 takes on great significance: it is both the year that Ai returns to China following a twelve year stay in America and the exhibition’s point of departure. In starting here, the exhibition posits a shift in Ai’s artistic practice that is underpinned by a greater exposure to Western art and a reconnection with China.
What follows the austere minimalism of the first room is a clear nod to Marcel Duchamp. A series of meticulously altered wooden furniture sculptures are each elegantly rendered useless, stripped of their functionality. Ai has cited Duchamp as ‘the most, if not the only, influential figure’ in his artistic practice. These works amount to both a witty remake of a readymade and a comment on the stultifying effects of bureaucracy. ‘Surveillance Camera’ (2010), exquisitely carved from marble, references the ostentation of the Ming dynasty; members of the Imperial family would be buried with marble recreations of everyday objects. The absurdity of such a pointlessly intricate task draws poetry from affectation. Again Ai creates a purposeless object, this time through fabrication rather than manipulation of material. It is a clever pairing. The burden of the State and the powers of surveillance that have shaped Ai’s artistic and activist life weigh heavily.
Alongside material exploration, the exhibition is suffused with the politics of Ai’s homeland. Occasionally, the drive behind works feels less a critique of the Chinese government, more a rash of personal frustration. In ‘Souvenir from Shanghai’ (2012), a solid block of rubble and woodcarving sits next to a spilling mass of porcelain river crabs. The rubble constitutes the remains of Ai’s Shanghai studio that was demolished by the Chinese authorities for contravening planning regulations. Despite being under house arrest at the time, Ai arranged a protest lunch there for 800 supporters where they feasted on river crabs – He xie – a homonym for the spelling of harmony. There is not the subtlety in abstraction of the furniture pieces here, but the work amounts to an elegant articulation of one-upmanship. In not looking beyond his own personal irritation with the Chinese authorities, however, the work lacks the sharpness of critique seen elsewhere in the exhibition.
The knowing variation of scale and material brings constant dynamism to the experience, even if the affective and critical power of works proves inconsistent. The exhibition is frequently astonishing for the architectural feat of installation and for its raw emotional power. The two combine in ‘Straight’ (2008-12), a charged and abstract piece of memory sculpture. Comprised of over 200 tonnes of painstakingly straightened reclaimed steel rebar, the elegantly sombre work commemorates those killed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The reparative force of undoing, remaking and reassembling is a breathtakingly cathartic moment. At once a moving and tactile memorial to lives lost, it also viciously critiques substandard government building methods. In the rippling sculptural form, each individual length of rebar is achingly discernible. Collected from the earthquake site, each piece takes on the morphological weight of a human figure. In a gesture of embodied grief, Ai seems to situate himself within the sculpture. Despite its visual language reminiscent of Western minimalism, ‘Straight’ only intensifies Ai’s profound and emotive connection to China.