From Mayfair to Beijing: planning an exhibition with Ai Weiwei

Behind the scenes

Published 26 November 2014

How to put a major exhibition together when the artist in question can’t leave his home country? Ai Weiwei has a virtual tour of our galleries before curator Adrian Locke visits him (and his cats) in Beijing.

  • Part one 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.

    Before I left for Beijing, for my first meeting with Ai Weiwei and his studio team, I had to think about how best to maximise my time with him. It should come as no surprise Ai Weiwei is a very busy man with a studio to run, new projects to get started, current projects to oversee and numerous visitors to receive. Not for nothing is he currently one of the world’s most in-demand artists. Ai Weiwei’s situation is further complicated by the fact that he cannot travel outside of China. Since his secret detainment in 2011 and the well-publicised contested tax bill the following year, the authorities have withheld his passport.

    In order to expedite things, I thought about what might really help him understand what the Royal Academy looks like over and above the standard architectural drawings we had already sent him, at his request. As an architect Ai Weiwei can read plans, but how best to convey the sense of scale and the impact of walking through the Annenberg Courtyard from Piccadilly and into Burlington House? In the end I decided a visual aid would be best, but rather than send endless photos, why not make a film and lead him on a tour of the RA? Enlisting the help of Amy Macpherson from our Digital team, I took Ai Weiwei on a whistlestop tour of the galleries, walking from Piccadilly through the front door and up the stairs into the Anselm Kiefer exhibition.

  • Some screenshots from the gallery tour we recorded for Ai Weiwei

    Some screenshots from the gallery tour we recorded for Ai Weiwei

  • The filming had to be done in two stages; daylight outside and then twilight inside after the galleries were closed to the public with me walking, talking and throwing my arms around trying to point out the relevant detail and things of interest. The 15 minute film felt simple, superficial even, but we sent it anyway with a long illustrated list of objects that we wanted to discuss with him and reduce to a sensible number; in other words the starting point to making an exhibition together.

    Simple as the film seemed to me, first thing that Ai Weiwei said to me, after we had been introduced at his studio, was how much younger I looked in person than in the film. He had, he said, enjoyed the film and found it very helpful since he was not very familiar with the Royal Academy. Certainly that broke the ice and we sat down in the garden on a fine autumnal day. At that point an off-white, furry cat, one of about 20 in his studio, leapt onto the table and settled down among the various papers, laptops and cups of tea. That, one of the studio assistants said, is the meeting cat.

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