It’s the cultural event of the year, giving the West stirring insight into life in China. WGSN Associate Editor of City By City Emily Cater reports
In a landmark exhibition, renowned artist and political activist Ai Weiwei has presented a series of his most important works, both past and more recent, a number of which are large-scale installations created specifically for the Royal Academy’s galleries. As Ai is finally able to travel outside China and regain some of his creative and personal freedom, there’s no better time to discover his works for yourself and the powerful stories behind them.
1. This exhibition is the first major survey of the artist and activist’s work ever held in the UK, focusing on over two decades of his career, so it’s a unique opportunity. One of his last works in the UK was the sunflower seeds installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010 but this is a much bigger deal.
2. Some of Ai’s best works are the grand-scale pieces which are intended as hard-hitting political statements. Straight for example, commemorates the 5,000 children who died when the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that shattered their schools. The artist tried to use his blog to name both the victims and the officials involved in the poor construction of the schools, but was arrested and illegally incarcerated for 81 days. The work features 90 tonnes of hand-twisted metal collected from the ruins of the schools, and serves both as a poignant reminder of the tragic event and an intense and thought-provoking piece of art. It is pieces like this which give the viewer perspective around issues in China including censorship, human rights, creative freedom and politics.
3. Perhaps one of the most fascinating and equally shocking pieces of works giving a true insight into the experiences of the artist, are the six rusting tanks in the final gallery, called S.A.C.R.E.D. Visitors are able to peer through a small side window to find a diorama of the cell he was kept in, featuring models of Ai and two guards watching his every move, never more than a metre away from him. Watching him as he sleeps, eats, showers, their presence is intimidating, claustrophobic and entirely intrusive, making this another powerful statement on the brutality of the state and a must-see piece of art.
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