Britain to stage big retrospective of Ai's work

Ai Weiwei's first solo exhibition in Beijing includes a 400-year-old wooden ancestral hall (above, background).
Ai Weiwei's first solo exhibition in Beijing includes a 400-year-old wooden ancestral hall (above, background).PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

London - The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei will have what is being billed as the biggest retrospective of his work ever staged in Britain at an exhibition opening at the Royal Academy of Arts in September, the academy said on Monday.

The show is being mounted in his absence, as he cannot travel outside China.

For decades a critic of the Chinese government's record on free speech and human rights, he has been banned from travel since his 81-day detention in China in 2011.

But China had allowed his first solo exhibition to open in Beijing on June 6. Lacking his usual political commentary, the show at the Galleria Continua - which reports said local authorities had approved - consists of a reconstructed 400-year-old wooden ancestral hall.

Ai's London show exhibition will include works from 1993 onwards, marking the years since he returned to China after more than a decade working abroad, including in New York where he was heavily influenced by pop artist Andy Warhol and also became a proponent of the "found art" movement epitomised by Marcel Duchamp.

"I'm honoured to have the chance to exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts," Ai said in a statement released by the academy. "This exhibition is my first major survey in London, a city I greatly admire. The selected artworks reflect my practice in recent years and also include new works made specifically for this show."

The exhibition has been developed in close collaboration with Ai, the academy said. "The artist has virtually navigated the spaces from his studio in Beijing, through video footage of the galleries and architectural plans. The curators have also made regular visits to his studio."

Many of Ai's works use ancient artefacts, such as Qing dynasty vases, and rework them with modern enamels and similar touches. He also draws attention to the lack of privacy in modern life with carefully crafted marble replicas of security or video cameras.

A new artwork Remains, 2015, that will be in the exhibition, is a work in porcelain that replicates a group of bones that were recently excavated at a site of a labour camp that operated under communist leader Mao Zedong in the 1950s.

Another of the key installations will be Straight, 2008-12, part of a body of work related to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. It is fabricated from 90 tonnes of bent and twisted rebar collected by the artist and straightened by hand as a monument to the victims of the earthquake.

The exhibition further marks Ai, 57, having been elected an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Arts in May 2011, as an act of solidarity following his detention.

"This exhibition will follow in the Royal Academy's tradition of celebrating its Royal Academicians, continuing the strand of programming that has showcased some of the most significant living artists including Anish Kapoor, David Hockney and Anselm Kiefer," the academy said.

Reuters, Xinhua

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2015, with the headline 'Britain to stage big retrospective of Ai's work'. Print Edition | Subscribe