26 October 2016
Ai Weiwei's first major retrospective at the Royal Academy in London received glowing reviews from British art critics. Photos: Jennifer Wong,
Ai Weiwei's first major retrospective at the Royal Academy in London received glowing reviews from British art critics. Photos: Jennifer Wong,

Ai Weiwei stages emotionally charged art show in London

Ai Weiwei’s first major retrospective at the Royal Academy in London has received glowing reviews from leading British newspapers and art critics.

It was hailed as “beautiful and coherent” (The Independent), “immensely impressive” (The Daily Telegraph), and outstanding for “his humanisation of conceptual art” (The Guardian).

Spanning two decades, his works, including sculptures, installations and videos, engage the viewers in an exploration of various themes such as communication and freedom, social justice, the moral rights and duties of a global citizen, and an individual’s dilemma of choosing between speech and silence in the face of oppression.

Taking up an entire exhibition room, the massive artpiece Straight (2008-2012) presents itself as a tremendously moving memorial to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

It includes a gigantic list of the names and ages of children who died in the earthquake, a tragedy which saw the deaths of over 5,000 students from 20 schools.

This information about the victims was not provided by the authorities. Rather, Ai conducted a “citizen’s investigation”, digging up the names of the deceased by approaching the parents in the area.

Simple yet powerful, the massive exhibit reveals the massive loss of innocent lives in natural as well as social disasters. It also serves as a silent protest against the authorities who tried to cover up the truth rather than comfort or help the bereaved families.

In the middle lies an installation made up of 90 tons of rebar (steel reinforcing bars used in constructing concrete structures) excavated from the disaster, hammered by hand to pre-earthquake condition by over 100 workers.

Not only does it convey the magnitude of the earthquake in China, it questions why such catastrophes happened and whether they were indeed inevitable.

A video exhibit shows how Ai was stopped by a police officer in the street when he was driving in Beijing. Without explaining to him details of his allegation or providing him a chance to defend himself, the police officer criticized Ai for spreading bad rumors overseas.

When asked who the police officer was representing, the officer said, “I represent China”.

The video leads one to think about the meanings and functions of nationalism and individualism, and how our behaviors are always affected by our ideology.

The exhibition culminates in one of Ai’s most disturbing exhibits to date. Entitled S.A.C.R.E.D., six box-like steel structures fill the hall. Through peepholes, the viewer is able to find out what is happening. Inside each structure, we see a replica of Ai in a detention cell — eating, taking a shower or going to the toilet — watched all the time by two uniformed guards.

There is no sound at all other than the whirling noise of a ventilation fan. The wallpaper artpiece in the same exhibition hall, Golden Age, features golden motifs of the Twitter logo, handcuffs and surveillance cameras, suggesting the power of social media in advancing individualism and overriding the limitations of oppressive regimes.

Other than being known for its political agenda, Ai’s art stands out for its emotionally-charged representation of humanist values and concerns, while his adventurousness in the use and adaptation of materials (from wood, glass and vase to marble and steel) is certainly striking.

There is a steady flow of visitors to his show, including locals and tourists, Asian and non-Asian, people of all ages. It is strange to realize that Chinese visitors to the show would not be able to see it in their own country.

At the entrance to the exhibition, the team from the Royal Academy took the opportunity to advertise their membership scheme.

One cannot help but notice an unusual note of caution included in the acknowledgement section of the exhibition: “No umbrellas allowed.”

It probably makes sense. Let’s just have one protester at a time.


Ai Weiwei in London. The video:

– Contact us at [email protected]


Steel reinforcing bars excavated from areas devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake are used in Ai Weiwei’s massive artwork that includes a giant wall covered with the names of children who died in the disaster. Photos: Jennifer Wong

The exhibition spans Ai Weiwei’s bountiful career over the last 22 years. Photo: Jennifer Wong

EJ Insight contributor

EJI Weekly Newsletter