While other contemporary Chinese artists also use traditional materials for modern ends, none has been able to pose such complex questions so succinctly. “Ai has carved himself a place which is unique to him,” explains Uli Sigg, the world’s foremost collector of contemporary Chinese art and a long-time friend of Ai’s. “His work is very focused on the dramatic clash between tradition and consumerism, as well as tradition and the industrial culture that has recently so overpowered China.” Bikes, once so ubiquitous on the nation’s streets, are stacked in spectacular chandeliers (Very Yao, 2009-14); gymnastic parallel bars, seen in every Chinese school, are compacted with wood from dismantled Qing temples (Kippe, 2006); a ton of black tea leaves, sourced from the famous tea-growing province of Yunnan, is compressed into a tight cube (Ton of Tea, 2008). Signifiers of Chinese culture are, in Ai’s hands, carefully recalibrated, their meanings made molten, fluid and open for interpretation.
“There’s a lightness of touch to these works, even humour, as well as great knowledge and great clarity,” says Hilty. The knowledge comes from Ai’s experience as a collector of Chinese art and antiques, who works closely with artisans to fabricate works in relation to, and often from, his acquisitions, helping to preserve traditional forms of craft in the process. “Collecting and creating are probably the most related acts,” Ai claims, when I ask him about his two loves. “In some instances, there may be no separation at all. Both require reason, aesthetic judgement and choice. Those decisions reflect the attitude or character of a person who either collects or creates.”
While knowledge about antiquities can be acquired, the clarity Hilty mentions is something more ingrained, according to Sigg. “Ai is a brilliant individual who probably would succeed in many disciplines, not just in art, because he has a very clear and sharp mind, and he can express himself in a very precise way,” he says. “The way he is wired is very creative, allowing him to come up with things that we wouldn’t. He’s a kind of contrarian in my mind – he puts everything on its head in a very strange process that produces a surprising result.”
“And, of course, this contrarian side is seen in his activism, which is uncompromising and very much to do with his personality, which is authentic in its expression. He is the most daring and aggressive artist in the stand against official China. He is not the only artist who does political work, but other Chinese artists are subtle in their subversion, or avoid directly speaking out. In his directness and fearlessness he is set apart.”
Ai’s activism matured in 2008 in response to two events, the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics. Although he had collaborated with the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron on the National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, the distance between the government’s proud rhetoric in the run-up to the Olympics and the continued lack of human rights led him to boycott the Games publicly.
Since 2005 he had been avidly blogging, sharing his life with thousands of readers through text and images and, increasingly, facilitating artworks through the internet; in 2007, for example, he used his blog to organise Fairytale, a performance work in which 1,001 Chinese citizens descended on the Documenta 12 art festival in Kassel, Germany. But by 2008 his blog turned its attention to condemning what he saw as the sham Olympic celebrations, and by 2009 the blog was shut down, after it mobilised volunteers to name the victims of the Sichuan earthquake. In August of that year, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, Ai was beaten by police and then held in a hotel room to prevent him from attending the trial of Tan Zuoren, a fellow activist also investigating the collapse of school buildings during the earthquake. Four weeks later, while in Munich, the artist had to undergo surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage that can be linked to the beating.
The largest gallery in the RA exhibition focuses on Ai’s art in response to Sichuan. As well as displaying the names of the students who died, and photographs of the destruction the earthquake wrought, the artist has installed Straight (2008-12, pictured below), a monumental floor-based sculpture formed from 90 tons of steel rebars found at the site. The thousands of rods had once held up buildings, before being twisted and mangled in the force of the quake. Ai employed labourers to straighten them by hand by striking each one up to 200 times. These have been aligned across the gallery in a shape like a giant seismogram. He has said that the materials for this sculpture are “history, individual stories, blood, tears and labour”.