Collaborating with an artist on a major retrospective of their work is a challenging project for any gallery, but what happens when the artist in question cannot leave his country, or even his home, thousands of miles from the location of his exhibition? This was the obstacle that confronted curator Adrian Locke when he set about creating the first large-scale British exhibition of artist Ai Weiwei’s work at the Royal Academy. As a fiercely outspoken critic of the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei has been subject to a life of constant surveillance, investigation and, since 2013, the confiscation of his passport and his right to travel.
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Determined to bring Weiwei’s work to London, Locke’s solution to these unique circumstances was a 15-minute film tour of the Royal Academy gallery, guiding Weiwei through the space where his work would be shown. From this, the artist could design his exhibition remotely from his studios in Beijing. Ten months of collaborative work by teams spanning three continents followed, incorporating Weiwei’s most iconic work with new pieces exploring notions of creative and political freedom. Weiwei has said of Modernism that “it is the ultimate consideration of the meaning of existence and the plight of reality, it is keeping tabs on society and it does not co-operate,” so themes of political and social criticism are expected to run strong through the RA exhibition.
Highlights are set to include I.O.U Wallpaper, featuring the promissory note Weiwei gave to each person who donated money to pay off the £1 million fine levied on the artist by the Chinese government for supposed tax evasion. Large-scale work Straight will also form the centrepiece of the exhibition, constructed from 200 tonnes of mangled steel rods rescued from buildings destroyed by the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, straightened by hand to form a monument to the 69,000 killed by the disaster. Weiwei’s decision to re-purpose building materials references the sub-standard construction of many of the buildings destroyed by the earthquake, particularly schools, which Weiwei believes were disproportionately effected by the disaster due to corrupt officials siphoning off funds. Weiwei has said that his activism is “inseparable from my art” and, if so, this exhibition promises to combine the two in spectacular fashion.
September 19th - December 13th.
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1J OBD. 020 7300 8000. www.royalacademy.org.uk