The Royal Academy of Arts in London, Piccadilly is a far reach from the life Ai Weiwei has led. Born in 1957 in the midst of Mao’s China, his family were sent to a labour camp in 1958, and subsequently exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, as a result of his father -a poet- speaking out against the Chinese regime. Ai has continually denounced the government, first using his blog and then Twitter, on matters such as the Beijing Olympic Games, and the Shichuan earthquake, which killed over 5,000 school children in 2008, as a result of its poor infrastructure. The earthquake is one of the central motifs here at the exhibition, with steel reinforcement beams, collected from the affected schools and restored to their original condition, accompanied by the full list of victims and photographs of the aftermath.
The pinnacle of the exhibition is the last room in the series. On 3 April 2011, Ai was arrested under charges of tax evasion. He was told by the government that he could not speak about his detention, so in true artistic style, he recreated scenes from his detention in 6 scaled-down boxes, which the viewers could look into but only through a few small slots. Through these, Ai gives us some access to: his interrogation, constant supervision by a pair of guards who, while under orders not to engage with the prisoner, had to accompany him at all times, even to the toilet; and the details, such as his only source of ventilation in the form of a small fan. The walls are decorated with Twitter logos, encircled by security cameras – a stark commentary on our increasingly totalitarian privacy laws in both the East and the West alike.
Poignantly, just outside the exhibition, there is a portion of wall given over to the IOU’s written for those who donated money to help pay his million-pound fine for tax evasion, which serves as a reminder of the humility of a man defiant enough to stand up for his beliefs in the face of injustice.
Image: Royal Academy Of Arts