Ai Weiwei's current exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is his first major retrospective in the United Kingdom. His name has long been familiar to most of us, and many of us would recognise him if he passed us on the street. We know of his courageous advocacy of human rights in his native China, and of his suppression and imprisonment by the Chinese authorities, but of his work, that which actually defines his project as an artist, we have so far seen little.
The current exhibition changes all of that. The first thing that struck me, on entering the exhibition, is the enormous scale on which Ai works. This is not a lone dissident labouring away in a dingy basement, but rather the director of a vast atelier, the output of which includes the heaviest work of art ever to have sat on the floorboards of the Royal Academy. In fact, the word "dissident" tells only one part of the story. Ai has acquired shares in a quarry producing stone for his workshop; he has craftsmen from many specialisations working for him (in his promotion of traditional Chinese carpentry, stone-working and ceramic manufacture, he resembles a John Ruskin or a William Morris); perhaps most significantly of all, he has the facility to store and transport colossal pieces of sculpture. Surely none of this could have been achieved without friends, as well as foes, in the upper echelons of the Chinese establishment.
Those friends notwithstanding, it was a brave decision on Ai's part, after spending twelve years in exile in the United States, to return to China in 1993. A brave decision, but a fruitful one, for this body of work could certainly not have been produced anywhere else. The transformation of China, and especially its urban landscapes, over the past thirty years is on a scale not paralleled in Europe since the mid-nineteenth Century (Charles Dickens, on the pages of Dombey and Son, gives us a close approximation).
I first visited China on University business in 2001, and, for the next eight years, I made at least one, sometimes two, visits each year. Without fail, each time I arrived in Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai, I would get lost. Everything was changing, nothing remained still, and I never stepped twice onto the same streets. There were very good reasons for these changes: quaint and atmospheric as they may have been, the houses of the narrow, traditional hutong streets lacked all modern facilities, and posed an all-too-obvious fire risk. If much was gained, however, something was also being lost.
At the heart of every community in Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) China was a clan temple, part of an ancestor-cult that dates back to the age of Confucius (551-479 BC). Here weddings were solemnised, prayers were said for the recently departed and, in at least some cases, young men were prepared for the gruelling examinations for the Imperial civil service. Many of these were still standing (though fewer were in active use) in 1993; I peered into a few derelict examples in 2001 and 2002; only a handful are still standing today, protected as ancient monuments and open to tourists.
Ai Weiwei and his collaborators collected a great volume of wood from the demolished temples, and used it to make sculptural installations. They also collected abandoned furniture from the houses of the hutongs, and combined these into new and imaginative arrangements. Ai is not, I think, suggesting a return to the past, but he is, perhaps, making some space for its ghosts; insisting, rather as John Betjeman did for Victorian architecture, that there is value in engaging with the past, even as society moves on from it.
Nor does he stop with the Qing Dynasty. More controversially, he has "destroyed" (he prefers to say "transformed") and over-painted vases from China's Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and even pulverised "Neolithic" pottery. The boundaries between protest, satire and creativity, here, are blurred. I have walked through the antique markets where he acquired these vessels with Chinese archaeologists, who assured me that most of the pieces offered for sale were fakes. "All the same," said one of these colleagues, "you wouldn't want to be caught at the airport with one of these in your luggage!"
If Ai Weiwei's engagement with the Ghosts of China Past have been, for the most part, playful, his interaction with the Ghosts of China Present have been far more problematic in terms of his relationship with the regime. No artist or writer could respond playfully to the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, especially when it became clear that the death-toll was made much higher by the corrupt actions of local officials, cutting corners with even the lax building standards that apply in China. Ai Weiwei courageously published the names of the victims, thereby subverting an official attempt to cover up the scale of the tragedy. It was this, more than anything else, that prompted his arrest, detention and torture, highlighted in the exhibition by a series of menacing fibreglass dioramas.
There have been few exhibitions in London in recent years that have generated quite the sense of anticipation that I sensed around this one. Whilst he has been known to us as a "personality," Ai Weiwei's work has, for most of us, been a "known unknown." Now revealed to us, I can only encourage people to see it for themselves.
The Ai Weiwei Exhibition at London's Royal Academy runs until 13th December. Advance booking is strongly recommended.
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.