The Royal Academy’s survey on Ai Weiwei was as highly political, subversive, provocative and critical of the state and censorship as I would expect (and indeed hoped!) it to be. However, what surprised me was the artists’ genuine appreciation of traditional dynastic craftsmanship, techniques and materials – which is palpable throughout the exhibition. Spanning eleven large galleries, it focusses on Ai’s work from 1993 onwards following his return to Beijing after living in America for over a decade when his father became unwell. The big-name monumental sculptures including ‘Bed’, ‘Straight’ and ‘Fragments’ take up entire galleries by themselves, and whilst I appreciated their ambitious scale and enjoyed exploring them from all angles, they didn’t grab my attention in the same way several smaller pieces did. The ‘Coca-Cola Vase’, a Han Dynasty vase (dating 206BC – 220 AD) emblazoned with the global brands’ logo raised interesting questions about old versus new, fakes being sold as originals, and if pottery is created today using centuries old materials and techniques what makes it a forgery? Similarly a collection of 3,000 ceramic crab sculptures collectively titled ‘He Xie’ is the result of one municipal authority inviting Ai to design and build a studio to help regenerate their province, which was quickly demolished and he was put under house-arrest, but through social media invited the public to dine on river crabs in protest – as the word for river crab in Chinese is synonymous with internet censorship. Human rights and suppression are common themes throughout; from a surveillance camera carved in white marble, to hand-cuffs made from a single piece of jade, gold wallpaper repeating a pattern interweaving the Twitter logo, hand-cuffs and CCTV cameras, and his most explicit fuck you in ‘Finger’ a black and white wallpaper showing the internationally recognised symbol of the middle finger in different artistic configurations!
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