Who would have thought, a few years ago, that the Reynolds statue might almost be crowded out of the Burlington House courtyard by a man-made forest and a leather armchair? But then who would have imagined a Chinese state visit either taking place or being upstaged by an exhibition of work by Ai Weiwei?
Perhaps upstaged is the wrong word, but at least Ai Weiwei wasn’t as stage-managed as the state visit and was the more memorable for that. His work is just the kind of thing an authoritarian government does not want. It is humorous, but also bitter, and deeply humane. Ai Weiwei himself has suffered for it, as his father before him in different ways and for different reasons.
Nothng in the exhibition is exactly as it seems, and needs careful thought to reveal its complexity as well as – often though not always – its beauty. Images tell the story better than words, but words add a necessary dimension. Here the sound commentary guide is an asset to visitors.
Much of the work features recycled materials, often precious timbers from dismantled temples. These are carefully crafted into new objects, at times subverting the ways we expect objects to be used. A table pierced by a column or cut and reassembled so that two legs project against a wall make comments on how the regime has held Chinese traditions in contempt. That being so, Ai Weiwei is prepared to convert a valuable vase by painting “Coca Cola” on it or even dropping one so that it breaks.
“Bed” would be very uncomfortable to sleep on as it represents the contours of China in hardwood, but then the wood itself was once built into a temple. More disturbing still is the representation of an earthquake made from steel rods salvaged from the ruins that killed hundreds of children because their school collapsed instead of being supported by those same sub-standard rods. More work went into straightening and assembling them as sculpture than had gone into the original buildings. The walls surrounding this sculpture list the names of those known to have died, who may otherwise have remained anonymous.
The life of a child comes into sharp focus with a baby buggy made of marble at one side of a marble lawn under surveillance by a camera also of marble. None of these could be of use, although marble is of course valuable. Undercover police kept watch on the sculptor as he took his young son out in Beijing.
A three-dimensional map of China that resembles the courtyard forest offers a summary of the exhibition’s themes, and further evidence that all is not as it may appear. It follows immediately after a salvaged representation of the art complex Ai Weiwei was commissioned to design in Shanghai. This had to be salvaged because central authority then decreed it had been built without permission, so it was demolished.
An exquisitely made box represents the tradition of cabinets with compartments for precious objects. It has a resemblance to the camera obscura, which becomes ironic when the penultimate part of the exhibition shows in just such boxes, though made of steel, the degrading conditions suffered during Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment a few years ago. These conditions can only be glimpsed in part through small windows.
On the day we visited the final display, of a bicycle chandelier suspended from the roof, was enhanced by a Chinese dancer performing silently in its light. Delicate movement matched the contradictory delicacy of numerous bicycles hanging at odd angles and of course subverting their function as indeed the traditional cyclist has given way to the new rich motorist filling the Chinese atmosphere with fumes.
Friends of the Royal Academy, and it seems surprising they don’t yet outnumber general public attendances at exhibitions, can relax before or after visiting the galleries in the Keeper’s House. Sitting there with a drink or food – or both – allows the mind to settle before returning to the outside world.