Yesterday evening, after a few worries that the train wasn’t going to make it in time, I visited the Ai WeiWei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. I was coming to London for another event, and my cousin asked if I wanted to go .. and being a bit of a Danny Wallace mood (‘Yes Man‘), I said yes. I like to try things with no expectations, but I have to admit feeling a bit cautious about how pretentious it would be (I went to an exhibition at the Baltic, Gateshead in the summer and just shook my head around it, and have seen more paintings titled ‘untitled’ than I ever wish to see again in my life) – as I’m more of a popular culture girl than elite culture! All I knew was that I’d seen his name on the news as someone who had been under house-arrest and after a global protest he had got his passport back earlier this year. I (deliberately) went in blind – not even checking Wikipedia for some basic information before I went in…
As I wandering around, it reminded me of essays that I wrote for my degree (PDF) along the lines of ‘what is art?’, as several of his pieces made little sense without the audio guide. I know one can seek meaning on one’s own terms, but for conceptual art, I like to see the meaning that the artist has imbued it with – and boy, was there some deep meaning in these pieces of art.
In the first room a piece of wood had been carved to shape the rise and fall of China’s terrain, in the second – in a challenge against technology, vintage pieces had been reworked using traditional craftwork (no glue). The third room (above) is the one in which I sat for a long time … 12 metre-square of scaffolding rods rescued from an earthquake in China have been hammered out straight, and piled up in the form of richter-scale measurements – surrounded by the names of all the children who died in the earthquake … seeking to highlight the poor nature of building – in return for a quick profit, a heavy price was paid.
There are protests against mass culture, pieces rescued from political vandalism, comments on mass production and advertising, ancient vases repainted and smashed to pieces as political commentary, comments on surveillance, consumerism, and Chinese life… and has much to say about contemporary communication – using Twitter and Instagram particularly for (visual) political and social commentary. Left us with lots to think about … over a Portuguese meal in Canela Cafe.
I was expecting there to be signs everywhere saying ‘don’t photograph’ – I have no idea what the standard RA policy is, but there were no restrictions on photography – honestly these pieces are so big, and there’s so many people around, I suspect the RA has realised that sharing on social media, etc. encourages more visitors as commercial quality photos would be hard to capture.. I wonder! Touching some of the pieces also didn’t seem to be restricted … very different from the notice engraved into one of the marble walls!
See my photos on Facebook (public album).
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.