Monday, October 12, 2015
The Ais have it
I suppose if I added them up, I’d find I’d spent quite a few hours, over the years, in the courtyard of Burlington House, the Royal Academy's building in London’s Piccadilly. Waiting for friends, waiting in particular for a friend who’s a member and sometimes gets me in free as his guest, waiting for my son, queuing for a ticket. Fortunately, I always find something to look at: bits of relief carving, the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a memorable red telephone box, and the building itself, naturally. On Sunday all this was put into the shade by Tree, a large, site-specific work of art by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Tree is made up of sections of actual trees that have died in China. The artist buys these bits and then pieces them together to make whole trees. Except that they’re not, of course, whole trees: they consist of trunks and large branches, but have no roots, leaves, or twigs, and they are bolted together very obviously (how things are put together is a constant fascination of this artist’s work). And yet the forms Ai Weiwei has made are unmistakably tree-like, are the essence of tree as it were, and the trees thus made form an absorbing grove around the Reynolds statue, through which visitors wander, and look, and take photographs. The contrast between the classical architecture and this curious and woody construction is thought-provoking and when I was there, dozens of people were pausing, and looking, and having their thoughts provoked, and smiling in an engaged but rather wistful way.
It was much the same inside. Eleven rooms of Burlington House are full of Ai Weiwei’s work. A lot of it is assemblages of found objects – bits of trees, stools joined to one another that seem animated because they are set at such precarious angles, reinforcing bars from the concrete structure of a school destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, recycled masonry from Ai’s studio and gallery that was bulldozed by order of the Chinese authorities. All of this has huge visual power, as do some of the pieces made in other ways: 1 x 1 x1 metre cubes fashioned from rosewood or impacted tea, for example, like a standard measure of compressed Chinese culture, ordered from the sculptor’s yard and deposited in place on a beautifully crafted delivery palette.
As we walked around the galleries, alternately smiling at the loving way in which these items have been put together and frowning at the stories of trauma (the earthquake, Ai’s own imprisonment recreated in a suite of particularly disturbing dioramas that you view through tiny apertures*) evoked in these works, my son and I realised we were seeing something we’d always remember. It was partly that we were appreciating the material on so many levels – visual, constructional, in terms of its meaning, as metaphor of China, as objective correlative for Ai's life, and so on. And it was partly that this kind of art, conceived by the artist and then made or assembled by someone else, so familiar and sometimes so exasperating in art today, can take on a new meaning when it involved an artist who in the past hasn't even been allowed to leave China† and supervise the planning and assembling of his exhibitions. Stepping out into the sunshine and walking through the trees again, the world seemed a different place.
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*Reviewers and writers keep mentioning Marcel Duchamp in terms of the Ai Weiwei’s readymade pieces. Fair enough: Ai does too. But has anyone talked about how the dioramas relate to Duchamp’s last, disturbing work?
†The artist has now been issued with a passport (and, finally, a visa for the UK) and was able to travel to London for the installation of this show. Thanks to the readers who have pointed this out and added links such as this one. I hope Ai Weiwei continues to be granted freedom of movement.
Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy until 19 December.