Steel reinforcing bars reclaimed from buildings collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake.
Yesterday we met Sam at the Royal Academy. We have cards that would get us in free anyway but he, being editor of the RA magazine, offered to take us in to the Ai Wei Wei show on its very first day. The privilege of knowing Sam came through his commission of a poem for Anselm Kiefer, after which I asked him for space to write about the forgotten Polish artist, Felicia Glowacka, about whom more later. That article is done now and waiting to appear.
We had, of course, read Sam's fascinating article on the now world-famous Chinese artist in the magazine and since I link to it now I don't think it is necessary to write any thing particularly informative in this post. We know something of the scale of his work, of his arrest and imprisonment, of his tense relationship with the Chinese state. In any case Sam was very generous to show us around (and I hope he forgave me having forgotten details of the article)
These then are just brief observations.
ScaleThe sheer physical scale of the work is as overwhelming as the earlier Kiefer exhibition was in some respects but is so neatly divided into specific pieces that most rooms comprise a single project with related supporting work, which allows the mind to rest and gather itself. The scale, nevertheless, is industrial. The work requires more or less an industry to produce, employing not just assistants but top crafts people. We don't know their names but we are in no danger of forgetting them.
Balancing craft, concept and contextThe balance between craft, concept and context is the most dramatic aspect of the show. Handcraft has been derided and excluded from fine art for a long time with few exceptions apart from Grayson Perry, the comedy and irony of whose work have helped make it bombproof, so to produce an art that rehabilitates and adapts craft - in the form of joinery, casting, carving and modelling - on a conceptual level is a bold and refreshing move.
The Chinese contextThe context is China and, increasingly, as he grows ever more famous, Ai Wei Wei himself becomes a kind of screen on which China continues to write. But that writing is crude graffiti on beautifully made objects that disdain them. The work prefers its own commentating. The artist is so located in relationship to the work and to what it references that he becomes intrinsic to it. That ambiguity of status, the line of tension between personal history, art history, and political history, is the fault line Ai Wei Wei treads with ever more flamboyance.
Concept without chatGiven all that, the conceptual element is remarkably simple. It is conceptual art without the art bollocks that generally accompanies it. No specialist language, no cloud of theory, no reference to the usual concerns of contemporary western art is required to gloss it. The art actually has a subject. There is, for example, the destruction of several badly constructed school buildings in an earthquake in Straight (see top image). Rusted steel rods, salvaged from the ruins, constitute the floor while the names of the dead schoolchildren (never officially published) run right round the same room. The formal element of the rods is as important as the fact that they are there - the actual rods, the actual names. The whole is not only monumentally simple: it is, in effect, a monument.
Beyond the voidThe melding of highly crafted traditional form with rough material (such as you can find to a far greater extent in Kiefer) raises the role of irony to a humane dramatic level in the same way that post-modern techniques were adapted by Eastern European writing of the seventies and eighties to the social realities of their own human situation. There was no void at the centre of it. The game was about something that was really there. The rough in Ai Wei Wei is seamlessly joined to the crafted, through craft.
Dioramas and selfDifferent from the rest of the work, the set of dioramas at the end is a sort of Stations of the Cross recording Ai Wei Wei's own imprisonment. The temptation to present one's own life as martyrdom is never too far from the autobiographer. But even here we are invited not so much to observe a personal martyrdom as to note the working through of a system.
China as contradictionChina is immensely complex, of course. Our first contact last time in China (we are going there again next month) involved an entirely informal call on an artists' quarter full of vast studios and big modernist works that had already found a global market. The artists had monographs, catalogues, the lot. On another occasion we visited an artist in a much smaller studio who was frowned on by the state because of his figurative satirical subjects. The small studio was in an art college where he was not allowed to teach. So much happens side-by-side, one side the ghost of the other. On one hand the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai with its cocktail-bar and girl pianist: on the other the dirt-cheap labourers sleeping rough and raising still more exclusive buildings.
GlobalismA very early work by Ai Wei Wei, The Hanging Man, a joke (in silver) based on the profile of Marcel Duchamp, illustrates one key experience of the exhibition beyond the specific context of China. It is the global context. Modernism was the first movement that may be described as genuinely international even in its early days, extending well beyond Europe into India, Africa and South America. We are beyond internationalism now: we are all globalists within easy reach of a keyboard. Ai Wei Wei is clearly a product of late technology but, at the same time, retains Chinese motifs as well as referencing events in China. It is another part of the complex layer
Person and scaleThere is, at the same time, a certain niggling concern about the sheer scale of both the enterprise and the persona. Each of the monumental works on show would have occupied an army of people. That costs money and know-how. There is the apparatus of global success. We are a suspicious sceptical lot. But our scepticism is the product of circumstances quite unlike Ai Wei Wei's. He is running real risks: the dioramas are a public witness to that.
The bubble and the questionsWe live in a complex, sometimes contradictory world of which China is a kind of emblem. What is the meaning of the authoritarian state in a wildly free market? How can we be global yet local? How can a society venerate both Mao and cash? Outside the bubble we live in, the world has been showing signs of cracking, particularly in the Middle East. Questions are being asked, even in Europe, of values we assume are necessary to a good society. Those questions are bloody and absolute. They make grim shapes and haunt the bubble. China remains a high and ancient civilisation but it too is at tension with itself. Ai Wei Wei thinks the younger generation will look to resolve that tension in its own fashion. His art is delicately made yet monumental in both scale and ambition. It is itself part of that tension.