Some artists become famous. A few become more famous than their art. Ai Weiwei is a megastar, whose fame as an activist, dissident, and general pain in the backside of the Chinese government eclipses anything he has ever made. Which makes this exhibition of his work from the past two decades less of a retrospective and more of a belated introduction. You may find yourself saying: ‘Oh, that’s what he does.’
What Ai does is cubes and stacks, things – metal and wooden poles, posts, bars, bits of furniture and assorted architectural salvage – reconfigured, often with immense skill by Chinese craftsmen, to become rather gnomic sculptures that speak of cycles of construction and destruction. He himself comes out of the minimalist tradition of US artists Carl Andre and Richard Serra, and is part of an international generation that took those abstract forms and began to fill them with messy content. For Jeff Koons it was consumerism: hoovers and basketballs. For Damien Hirst it was death: bits of animal. Ai’s contribution is to equate the cube with the prison cell, and make a form of upcycled scatter art that speaks of exploitation and injustice. As a creative strategy it feels as worn as some of the Ming and Qing Dynasty furniture and ancient timbers from destroyed temples that you’ll see at the RA. In fact you could dismiss Ai as a mannerist and his work as prescriptive. Except that, in answer to the cold, dead hand of the state, his outwardly formal work expresses (or, rather, fails to suppress) something almost unique in contemporary art – rage.
There are two knockout galleries. The first contains ‘Straight’ (2008-12), 150 tonnes of steel reinforcing bars which Ai recovered from the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Forming a kind of tectonic landscape on the floor are the the rusting rods, which Ai had straightened by hand in his studio having bought them as scrap. Running round the walls are the names of more than 5,000 students who died in the disaster, their deaths largely due to the shoddy contruction of school buildings in the province. A video shows harrowing footage from the scene, of desperate resuscitation attempts, devastation and disbelief. It’s an epic and damning work.
On display in the second, ‘SACRED’(2012-13) consists of six large steel boxes, each with an aperture on the top through which you observe six tableaux of the cell in which Ai spent 81 days in detention in 2011. A mini Ai eats dinner, takes a shower, sits on the loo and is questioned, accompanied at all times by two mini uniformed guards. It’s as relentless as it is impeccably detailed. In fact, the tone of the whole show feels somewhat similar – stylish, solemn, rather monotonous. Is it fun? Absolutely not. But even its repetitiveness starts to feel purposeful and critical – evidence of an unyielding spirit in the face of an unrelenting regime.