Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Ai Weiwei in his studio in Beijing, taken in April 2015. Photo © Harry Pearce/Pentagram, 2015

MUCH OF Ai Weiwei’s extraordinary life is already common knowledge. His father, Ai Qing, is considered to be one of China’s greatest modern poets. Denounced as a dissident during Chairman Mao’s Anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s, Ai Qing moved with his wife into exile. The one-year-old Ai Weiwei, whose name, so the story goes, was chosen by the random act of opening a dictionary, went with them. Assigned to Ai Weiwei by chance, the ‘wei’ character means ‘not yet’; his name therefore conveys a double frustration, a twinning of negatives which serves to contradict itself. This sense of paradox would stay with him throughout his life.

An interest in art at high school took Ai Weiwei to New York in the 1980s, and it was there that he began testing his form and garnering influences: from Andy Warhol to Jasper Johns, and even Allen Ginsberg. His return to China in 1993 marked a move away from the fine art and photography with which he had been experimenting, in a step towards architectural design. He collaborated with Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to create the Beijing National Stadium, a project he would later turn away from, calling it a ‘pretend smile’ which perpetuated the Communist Party’s nationalist agenda. This interrogation of insincerities is something that informs much of his work: indeed, the very name of his architectural company, ‘FAKE design’, attests to his deep-rooted interest in honesty in art.

It was this concern for honesty that led to his Citizens’ Investigation, a self-styled enquiry into the deaths of several thousand school children as a result of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008. ‘In reaction to the government’s lack of transparency,’ Ai’s website tells us, ‘a citizen’s investigation was initiated to find out their names and details about their schools and families.’ This project was followed by another – Remembrance – which sought to commemorate the deceased students by publishing on Twitter voice recordings of all the names of those lost in the earthquake, as well as expressing ‘indignation for the cover-ups on truths about sub-standard architecture, which led to the large number of schools that collapsed’.

The distrust of the Chinese government we find in such projects is not an isolated attitude. Ai’s work is riddled with questions about Chinese social and political structures, questions framed both subtly and explicitly. Perhaps the most explicit – and the most disturbing – of his confrontations with the government came soon after his Citizens’ Investigation, when he was brutally beaten up by police in August 2009. He video-taped his detention, as well as documenting the brain surgery he subsequently underwent to combat the subdural haematoma he suffered as a result of the policemen’s blows to his head, and posted these images online in an act of quasi-performance art.

Ai Weiwei has accrued much international recognition for his dissidence, for his very vocal critique of the Chinese government; but what of his art? He is best known in the UK, perhaps, for Sunflower Seeds (2010-11), a work of immense proportions in which he filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with thousands of individually crafted porcelain seeds. He scandalised viewers with Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (from 1995), a triptych which documents the moment in which he smashed a centuries-old urn (two, actually; his photographer failed to capture the first urn’s fall). Elsewhere, works such as Fairytale (2007) tested traditional understandings of art by taking 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel in Germany, the home of the Brothers Grimm; the experience of their journey comprised the artwork itself.

Despite the controversies that his life and work have courted (perhaps because of such controversies), Ai Weiwei is quickly becoming one of the world’s most famous living artists. This fast-spreading recognition is testified to in his current exhibition at the Royal Academy, a single artist showcase which sees him joining the ranks of David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer and Anish Kapoor, who have all enjoyed solo shows at the RA in recent years. The exhibition, which includes creations from two decades of his career, is the largest survey of his work ever to be held in the UK. It marks a breakthrough moment for the artist.

And it certainly lives up to the hype. The pieces show an attention to detail and a meticulous concern for materials which Ai’s creations are never without. But threaded through this exhibition is a harsher undercurrent, a ceaseless interrogation of the Chinese government’s actions which culminates in a handful of incredibly disturbing works: a pair of handcuffs carved in jade, for example, representative of the 81 days Ai was held in secret detention in 2011, or the porcelain replicas of the bones of those imprisoned in work camps during the Anti-Rightist movement. Such pieces are made even more powerful by their presentation. Isolated in conventional glass museum cases, these objects take on a feeling of distance, of history, which jars with their relative modernity. The beauty of their materials and the detail of their craftsmanship invite us to admire them as works of art; and yet our minds insist that we be revolted by what these objects represent. It is not the first time that Ai Weiwei has played tricks with his viewer.

One of the most remarkable pieces in the show is Straight, a beautiful expanse of rods piled in sloping waves. The work is vast, and somehow calming: our eyes enjoy the gentle inclines; the rise and fall of the rods feels like the movement of water. But then we discover that the piece has been created from the twisted rebar of the buildings destroyed by the earthquake in Sichuan, straightened by hand and piled in enormous waves which are reminiscent of the seismic shocks that distorted them in 2008. The effect is unsettling, and throughout the show this uneasiness lingers. First impressions are proved invariably wrong.

Elsewhere, we find ourselves delighting in an ensemble of brightly-coloured vases before realising that what we see is, in many ways, an act of vandalism: this is carefully-sourced Neolithic pottery which Ai has dipped in paint, begging the question, as he does so, of whether the value of the vases has been lost by his actions, a question which restores us to Ai’s long-standing concern for authenticity. This theme is echoed in his Furniture series, in which he manipulates material from Qing- dynasty temples, blending it with modern furnishings.

The intelligence of Ai’s work is indisputable. His pieces are filled with secret clevernesses which a superficial look around the exhibition might overlook. Take, for example, the marble from which some of his sculptures are hewn: it is sourced from the same quarry that provided the marble for the Forbidden City, and for Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. An enormous installation named Fragments feels disjointed, even nonsensical, until it is viewed from above. Only then we discover that it resembles a map of China. Our ability to move through this installation is significant, the show’s co-curator Adrian Locke says; it is representative of a freedom of movement which China’s own civilians do not enjoy.

As Ai’s security at home continues to feel precarious (one piece – Souvenir from Shanghai – is created with the rubble from Ai’s Shanghai studio, demolished by the government in 2011, while another – Surveillance Camera – is modelled on the multiple cameras trained on Ai’s compound), his place in the international cultural establishment is confident. More than confident: consecrated, almost. At times, the West’s admiration of Ai’s life and work feels as though it verges on veneration, and this is addressed in one of the show’s final pieces, the tellingly named S.A.C.R.E.D. Six identical boxes stretch across the gallery, and contained within these boxes are six detailed scenes from Ai’s solitary confinement; we peer down into the claustrophobia of Ai’s experience as he eats, sleeps and is interrogated. The installation’s title (which stands for ‘Supper’, ‘Accusers’, ‘Cleansing’, ‘Ritual’, ‘Entropy’ and ‘Doubt’), as well as its presentation at 2013’s Venice Biennale in a church, lined up in the place of pews, gives the piece a tang of the ordeals undergone by Christian saints. In this, Ai is astute as ever, for the interest in him that has grown into something of a furore in the West frequently feels as though it bears some semblance to a cult.

But this enthusiasm has not been without criticism, both from the West and from inside China’s art scene. Speaking to The New Yorker earlier this year, Wang Jianwei slated Ai Weiwei for catering to the Western supposition that Chinese artists’ sole intention is to denigrate their own government. Other Chinese artists ‘don’t care about [Ai], and don’t care about the media’s worship of him,’ Wang said. Wang’s censure is one with which many of Ai’s detractors will agree: that Ai’s work prioritises politics over aesthetics, slipping, in doing so, into territory which some find hard to label ‘art’.

These issues of intention, of labels and veracity all seem somehow fitting when applied to an artist such as Ai Weiwei, who, in life as well as work, remains faithful to the paradox of his name, the double inconclusiveness of ‘wei’ and ‘wei’. And yet, despite being condemned by name to an eternal state of waiting, this solo exhibition at the Royal Academy bears tribute to an artist at the height of his powers, with a powerful body of work behind him. No longer ‘not yet’; this man has undeniably arrived.

XENOBE PURVIS

Until 13 December, Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy, London, www.royalacademy.org.uk