Ai Weiwei, The Royal Academy (until 13 December 2015)

Ai Weiwei’s first major exhibition in the UK is monumental in scale and scope. It uses the lofty spaces of the Royal Academy’s main galleries for some massive pieces that span the present to 1993 – when Ai Weiwei returned to China after having lived in New York for a decade.

It is nearly five years since Ai was last directly involved with overseeing an exhibition of this scale and complexity. In 2011, he was detained for 81 days by the Chinese authorities and his passport confiscated.

He only got his passport back in July this year, so had to devise the show from his studio in Beijing using video footage and architectural plans.

You get a crystal-clear sense of his time in prison in the unexpected installation consisting of six steel boxes:  5-feet high, 6-feet wide and 12-feet long. You peer in through little windows to see a 50% scale model of the cell in which Ai was held as a political prisoner. Ai and his two guards are seen inside. The guards were tasked with never being more than two feet away from him – as he slept, as he washed, as he pissed. This is something very private that the Chinese authorities don’t want you to see – but here it is, cast in steel.

Another key installation is ‘Straight’, 2008-12. A huge, perfectly-arranged rectangle of rusting steel construction rods, laid very carefully on top of each, creating precise undulating patterns – like the lines on a map. These were collected from the rubble of a shoddily-built school that collapsed in Sichuan an after earthquake, killing hundreds of school children. Ai had them painstakingly straightened by hand by a team of Chinese workers.

The huge piece has a stark impact – a memorial to the dead, a reminder of the physicality of things, and a blunt examination of the corrupt practices that lead to such poor building work.

It encompasses all the thematic strands of the show: the destruction of China’s past, the corruption of its totalitarian government, an architect’s sense of volume, geometry, space and texture – and a belief in the extraordinary skill and poetry of craftsmanship.

Curated by Tim Marlow, Artistic Director and Adrian Locke, Senior Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, in collaboration with Ai Weiwei.

(NB: if you go, try to take some Lego bricks to donate to Ai’s next installation. Drop them through the roof of an old BMW parked in the courtyard).

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.
Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry.