Review of 'Ai Weiwei'


So, all I really knew about Ai Weiwei before attending this exhibition was that he was not terribly well-liked by the Chinese government, had had problems getting a Visa for the UK and had some really interesting looking artwork. After attending this show on a very busy Saturday I now know much more about the man and his art. You are given an audio guide as part of the admission and I would recommend you pick it up as it provides more information than what is available in each of the rooms (though a plaque describing each piece is present). I would also recommend, to avoid the large queues, that you purchase your tickets in advance (ticket holders just walk straight in).

The exhibit occupies all of the main gallery space on the main floor of the Royal Academy and it is space very much needed with some of his massive pieces on display here. The show seeks to provide a broad overview of the man and his art - which it does reasonably well. There is only the one piece “Bicycle Chandelier” which has been specifically created for this exhibition that occupies the central gallery, the final room of the show.

The main centrepiece of the show I think is “Straight” which is a large number of “rebars” cut in various lengths laid out in the middle of the floor in a wave-like pattern. Weiwei salvaged these from the ruins of schools destroyed in the 2008 earthquake in Sitchuan. The exhibit blames the government for allowing the schools to be built with very low quality control - The video that accompanies the piece makes this very vivid with difficult to watch scenes of the aftermath. The walls around the metal are covered with a list of names of the children that were killed in the earthquake and are another tale in the story of Weiwei as he struggled to get these details from the government resorting instead to interviewing grieving parents.

The other particularly striking piece is a room containing six boxes that are 50% life size that are a reproduction of various stages of his incarceration in a small cell by the Chinese government. In one room he is seen being interrogated, another he is taking a shower and the most powerful image, in my opinion, is one of him sleeping with two guards standing beside his bedside looking at him. Whether this exhibit is largely an artefact of his own feelings of self-importance is unclear as the walls of this particular room are covered with wallpaper containing a pattern of gold coloured surveillance cameras (like those the Chinese government have placed around his studio in Beijing) and handcuffs surrounding a three-dimensional Twitter logo with Weiwei's image reflected within.

I suppose it is this that I found the most interesting aspect of the show: Whether Weiwei is seeking attention for himself or for the injustice perpetrated on his people. Another room we learn that having been asked by the government to build a studio in Shanghai it is torn down by the authorities as soon as it is completed as they argued it did not have planning permission: Whether or not this is true is slightly beside the point as the exhibition shows the details of the discussions with the authorities, the destruction of the studio, the “crab dinner” party he defiantly held during the demolition, and the artwork that Weiwei made from the rubble. He managed to turn this event into another piece of work and, indeed, a room in this show.

This show asked more questions than it answered but did, for me, give me a better understanding of the man if not the political situation in China. Sure we see protests but only in the context of Weiwei himself - nothing more. There are certainly some really interesting looking pieces of art here and I would urge anyone interested in modern art or, indeed, Weiwei, give this a visit.

Rating: “Really good but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2015-10-17

Royal Academy of Arts

Location: London (England)

Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly London W1J 0BD

Public Transport: TUBE Piccadilly Circus TUBE Green Park

Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7300 8000


The Royal Academy of Arts or simply “the Academy” is a venerable institution located only a stones throw from Piccadilly Circus that puts on a range of shows from various artists including one or two major shows a year. It is worth getting on the mailing list for advance notice of upcoming shows. Their magnificent building is accessed off of Piccadilly just opposite Fortnum & Mason - Pass through the courtyard (which often has large works of art on display) then enter the main galleries through the doors. There is a cloakroom on the left but it is quite small so they recommend small items only.