Introducing Ai Weiwei’s ‘Tree’

Behind the scenes

Published 15 July 2015

Curator Adrian Locke on the monumental installation that will be coming to the RA’s courtyard alongside our Ai Weiwei exhibition.

  • Part six in a series of blogs telling the story of how our forthcoming Ai Weiwei exhibition – the latest in our sequence of major single artist shows – is being put together across 10 months, by teams across three continents.

    When I was in Beijing for my first meeting with Ai Weiwei I went, as most people do, to visit the Forbidden City. I was astonished to see people taking photographs of themselves next to a dead tree in the Imperial Garden at the far north of the complex, adjacent to the Hall of Imperial Peace. In China, trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth, the realm between heaven and the underworld. This particular long-dead tree clearly held particular significance, perhaps as an indicator of the venerable age of the temple, linking the past to the present. When I saw this, it made me immediately think of Ai’s Tree series that he started in 2009.

  • Ai’s trees are made from parts of dead trees that are brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ai transports these to his studio in Beijing where they are made into trees. As he says, “it’s just like trying to imagine what the tree looked like”. Held together by hidden mortise and tenon joins and large industrial bolts, the trees look natural from a distance and artificial from close up. Tree has been likened to the modern Chinese nation, where ethnically diverse peoples have been brought together to form ‘One China’, a state-sponsored policy aimed at protecting and promoting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

    With eight individual trees placed together in the Annenberg Courtyard, this installation will be the largest single gathering of Tree to date. The scale and ambition of this work will not only make a lasting impression on those visiting the Royal Academy but will amply reflect the broader aspirations and scope of Ai Weiwei in the Main Galleries.

    Ai Weiwei is in the Main Galleries from 19 September — 13 December 2015.

    A new Kickstarter project, launching today, invites members of the public to join us in bringing Ai Weiwei’s most ambitious Tree work yet to London. For more information and to learn about the special rewards for backers, visit our Kickstarter page.