Monday, October 12, 2015

Piccadilly, London

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.

- - -

*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.


Anonymous said...

Ai Weiwei was in London last month - see for example

Anonymous said...

I find, from the RA website, that Ai Weiwei has been allowed to travel and that he was able to take part in the installation of the exhibition. There is a video of him being interviewed at length at the RA. I hope the following link is correct:

François-Marc Chaballier

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you both: I've now amended the post and added a link. I'd missed this visit: I was myself on the move, in Central Europe and away from the internet, when this news appeared in the British media. I am now kicking myself that I missed it.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

TREES in an urban, built environment nearly always work, even when bare. My first reaction on seeing the picture was that they were dead trees in situ which nobody had had the heart to take away. Nature has produced a similar effect on the hill near Abercynon, Glamorgan, where there was a fire in the early spring: the summer vegetation developed around otherwise dead-looking trees, or ones with mere wisps of leaves high up. In your picture, the architecture being solid and having grandeur is surely part of the piquant contrast: it wouldn't work so well in, say, a run-down early sixties shopping centre, e.g. Elephant and Castle in South London?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes. TREE is very specific to the place. The artist has obviously thought about the contrast between the architecture and the trees. Put it in the Elephant and Castle and...well...for a start, not all of the Elephant is run down these days, so it would depend exactly where you put it. But it would say something different at least.

The work is also, I think, designed to make just that first impression: it's a bunch of sad, dead trees. Then you get nearer, and see how they're put together, with bolts and so on. And then you step back again and see it all anew, but still in the context of the courtyard.

And there, at the RA, you also see it in context of a lot of other people. They are nearly all dressed in black, too. So there's a contrast between these rather primal-looking objects and the people in their 'going to the RA on Sunday' get up. It really is remarkable how many people there are dressed in black in the RA courtyard. Even I... Oh dear...

Joe Treasure said...

Meanwhile I was probably at the Elephant and Castle, in the subterranean shopping centre buying hardware, and not for anything remotely as creative as Ai's TREE, nor dressed fashionably in black. I MUST make better use of living in London! Thanks, Phil, for another evocative post.

Katharine A said...

I can't wait to see this exhibition. Love exhibitions that make you 'smile' and 'frown'. Presume you weren't allowed to take photos?