Man of the people

By skilfully involving others in his art and his business, Ai Weiwei plays the great democrat

This is a preview – because of press deadlines – of a phenomenon as much as of an exhibition. The Royal Academy’s autumn blockbuster on the one Chinese contemporary artist everyone has heard of has had a huge build-up since it was announced in 2014.  Never mind the art, what about the personality? Would the artist be given back his passport by the always-suspicious Chinese authorities, or would all the planning of the exhibition have to be done remotely?  Having got his passport, would he be granted a visa by the British authorities?  If so, what kind of visa?  And so on. 

As we now know, he got his passport back AND got the British visa, but not before some numbskull in the Passport Service had at first turned him down for the full version on the grounds that he had been a convicted criminal in China (he was not, he was detained for 81 days by the authorities and finally released without charge). It took the home secretary, Theresa May, to bang heads together on that one. All splendid publicity for the RA, which under its artistic director Tim Marlow, a professional broadcaster and critic, has anyway been trailing the show through endless unctuous blogs of the ‘making of…’ variety, and a teaser film clip of an interview with Ai by Marlow in which he names his influences – Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Warhol – and declares, to nobody’s surprise,  that his art and his politics are inseparable. 

From all these preliminaries we learn things such as the fact that his main studio compound is overrun with cats, one of which is called Garfield, another ‘meetings cat’, who lies on the table during meetings. We learn he (artist, not cat) likes to have such meetings early in the day,  that sometimes he eats in the studio and sometimes at a restaurant, and that he has one particularly large studio, a former factory, which lends itself well to atmospheric portrait shots of the kind that adorn the RA’s poster for the exhibition.

There is more. Despite all this advance publicity and the global fame of Ai Weiwei, it seemed at one point that the RA was short of sponsorship funds for one aspect in particular of the show: an installation of eight of his famous ‘trees’ in Burlington House’s  Annenberg Courtyard. Nothing daunted, the RA launched a global crowdfunding campaign for £100,000. The appeal featured photos of good-looking mostly young people holding placards of Ai’s sayings, as if he were some modern-day Confucius. ‘From the mountains of rural China to the heart of London, join the RA in creating an incredible piece of public art with Ai Weiwei,’ went the sell, which was complete with incentives for various levels of support: £5 got you a wink from Garfield, £150 a selfie from his master, and so on upwards. It worked: when the appeal closed on August 21, it had raised £123,577 from 1,319 backers. 

This was clever because it plays to the idea that this is in some way democratic art – see, the world chips in to help, so keen is it to see the work of this wise, great, wealthy, oppressed, photogenic man at the RA!

How things have changed since I wrote about Ai Weiwei in this magazine in January 2004 – an issue guest-edited by Herzog & de Meuron, who at the time were working with him on their design of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium in Beijing for the summer Olympics of 2008. Then, he was less well known while H&deM still seemed fresh. I wrote with fascination about Ai’s 1995 piece that involved the deliberate dropping and smashing of a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty urn (an act photographed and duly reproduced in our pages then, and which reappears in the RA show). Today, of course, both artist and architects are world superstars but with one important proviso: Ai remains stubbornly in China – despite the evident hostility of the authorities towards him, including the forced demolition of his Shanghai studio in 2011. He has built a surprising amount of relatively small-scale development in Beijing, in his parallel career as an architectural designer, though his art, we are told, is never exhibited in China. Hence all the passport/visa business. Given the regime’s past treatment of him and his family, he shows undoubted courage and determination in staying.

But does all this make him a good artist, as opposed to a clearly successful one?  There is a rising swell of opinion to the effect that he is not, particularly: that his is essentially Western conceptualism as he learned it during a youthful spell in New York, and that he does not bring much to the party that his heroes from Duchamp onwards have not done long before.  In other words – as with Salvador Dali in his day, say – are we are being seduced by the carefully-contrived persona, in this case helped along by our Western-liberal inclination in favour of the political rebel? This, after all, was why he was made an honorary RA in 2011: solidarity.

I’ll be amazed if this is not one of the RA’s most popular shows. And while I might not go quite so far as the ever-enthusiastic Marlow (‘One of the most important artists in the world today… a creative phenomenon that is at once radical, political, architectural, historical, poetic, materially inventive and transformative’)  for me Ai does bring something new to the table – in particular the commentary contained in his work. This is sometimes obvious (two cameras carved from marble, one a security camera of the kind he is constantly watched by, one a video camera of the kind Ai uses right back at them) sometimes oblique in a Cornelia Parkerish kind of way (twisted concrete rebar from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake straightened by hand and laid out so as to resemble a landscape).  And I’m expecting the courtyard full of crowdfunded trees – in which Ai grafts new ‘trees’ onto discarded lumps of felled ones – to be quite an experience. 

And finally: magnificent craft skills should be on show. Ai Weiwei depends on teams of others labouring to make his works, realise his ideas.  Even more than his admired Warhol with his prodigious output, he runs a Factory.  Director or dictator?  You decide. 

Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy, London, until December 13, full price £17.60.