London's Royal Academy crowdfunds Ai Weiwei installation

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in the movie, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. SOCIAL SERVICES

LONDON (AFP) - The Royal Academy of Arts in London launched a crowdfunding appeal on Wednesday for an installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei that would see its courtyard filled with giant reconstructed trees.

The world-famous gallery hopes to raise £100,000 (S$200,000) on Kickstarter to display eight trees that Ai has assembled from parts of dead trees collected in the mountains of southern China.

It is thought to be the first time a major British arts institution has used crowdfunding in this way, although an exhibition by Ai on Alcatraz Island in the United States last year also turned to Kickstarter.

"It's a calculated risk, but it's one worth taking," artistic programmes director Tim Marlow told AFP, adding that he was "quietly confident" they would raise the money.

The installation will be free and will complement a major, ticketed exhibition of Ai's work at the Royal Academy which runs from September to December.

The exhibition is funded by sponsorship - the Academy receives no public money for its shows - but Marlow said there has not been time to raise further funds for the installation.

He said crowdfunding was unlikely to replace "very necessary and generous corporate sponsorship" for most exhibitions.

"But it seems to me that a contemporary project that's available to all in the courtyard, from an artist who has widespread international public support, that works," he said.

Ai is China's best-known contemporary artist, as much for his work as his clashes with the authorities over his criticism of official corruption and political repression, for which he has been banned from travelling abroad.

The Royal Academy installation will be the biggest display to date of his "Trees" series, which began in 2009, and will see the 7m-tall trees clustered around a marble sofa, on which visitors will be encouraged to sit.

"They're the idea of a tree, and they're actually made of once living now dead trees that the artist brings back to life. They're extraordinary things," Marlow said.

Fourteen hours after the appeal went live, 100 backers had pledged about £7,500 in return for a variety of benefits, from Ai prints to Royal Academy membership.

In line with all crowdfunding projects, they will only pay out if the £100,000 target is reached by the deadline on Aug 21 - although Marlow said failure was not an option.

"If we don't raise the money, we'll have to find a way," he said.

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