We Opened Our Eyes

Photo above: © Harry Pearce/Pentagram

In this major exhibition China is laid bare through the eyes of one of the country’s most inspiring artistic talents. Isabel Carmichael welcomes the influential work of Ai Weiwei to London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

Quite simply one of the most contentious artists in the world for his criticism of China’s approach to human rights and freedom of speech, Ai Weiwei has been imprisoned, beaten and hospitalised for his art. His installations and sculptures represent clear and unapologetic criticisms of governmental policy; you will know of Ai Weiwei for his Sunflower Seeds exhibit in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern in 2010-2011 where 100 million seeds were poured into the space, each one hand-crafted from porcelain, it was this that got him noticed and which led to a mysterious incarceration by the Chinese authorities. The son of poet Ai Qing, Ai’s strong belief in personal freedoms has over the years seen him subjected to secret observations, arrests and most recently, the 81 day detention in 2011 following the Sunflower Seed exhibit which placed him at the center of an international human rights campaign lead by a number of prominent figures in the art world. His detention, like other personal experiences throughout his childhood and career – which saw him leave China for a period during the 1980s to settle in the US – led to the production of a vivid and personal body of work portraying his observation of a country that has lived through centuries of ruthless suppression and impounded freedom of speech. In recent years, Ai’s use of social media to voice his opinions has opened a new chapter in his artistic expressions, echoing some of the sentiments he has previously only communicated through his works.

In this timely exhibit, which coincides with the first state visit in a decade of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Royal Academy of Arts brings to the fore for the first time in the UK Ai Weiwei’s largest retrospective survey of China’s pursuit of power over its people all whilst promoting some of the key elements of Chinese cultural identity which are echoed through his choice of materials and construction methods. Hand crafted marble sculptures, porcelain and jade are prominent features of the exposition, touching upon Chinese artistic traditions, imperial history and skillful Chinese craftsmanship. Each installation and sculpture represents multidimensional meanings, each instrumental in helping the viewer to open their eyes – one of Ai’s most celebrated quotes – to see his message.

Ai Weiwei2

Bicycle Chandelier, 2015 © Dave Parry courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts

In this exhibition we see a man and hear a voice that is not afraid to objectify suppression, knowing full well that nothing is capable of silencing artistic expression.

Straight, 2008-12

There is something very poignant and targeted about the choice of materials used to create ‘Straight’. The largest gallery space in the Royal Academy of Arts displays Ai’s reaction to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 in which over 70 thousand people, largely children, in poorly designed schools, lost their lives. Straightened rods have been crafted by hand from the twisted and mangled steel that was all but destroyed in the quake. The 90-ton sculpture is laid out in broken waves recalling fault lines.

Ai Weiwei3

Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei

s.a.c.r.e.d., 2011-13

Possibly his most explicit work to date, S.A.C.R.E.D. depicts the time in which Ai is detained without warning by the Chinese Government. The installation is formed of six iron cubes with small apertures through which the viewer is able to observe miniature fiberglass representations of Ai and his guards during his detention period.

Ai Weiwei4

© Ken Adlard; Courtesy, Ai Weiwei Studio & Lisson Gallery


Ai Weiwei | Ending 13 December 2015 | Royal Academy of Arts, London

Back to Top

Get In Touch

Newsletter Sign Up