Destruction, censorship and surveillance: Ai Weiwei at the RA

Ceramic Review attended the press view of Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy last week.
Katherine Caddy, our Assistant Editor, takes a close look at the ceramic works on display

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Ai Weiwei, ‘Coloured Vases’, 2015 & ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’, 1995. Image copyright Ceramic Review.

This is an overwhelming, immersive show that reconsiders and reconfigures China and the artist’s encounters with its authorities.

Ai employs a rich range of materials, including ceramics, with which he communicates much about the destruction, censorship and monitoring of his artistic practice and day-to-day life in China. The ceramic works on display question the nature of authenticity and value, articulating the tension between old and new and exposing the lack of protection offered by the Chinese authorities to the historic fabric of many of the country’s cities.

3,000 porcelain crabs are dispersed across a corner of one room. This work’s title’, ‘He Xie’, is a homonym for ‘harmonious’, often used by the Chinese authorities. The title also refers to the slang term for Chinese censorship; the crabs do not have a voice and are uncomfortably piled in a space in which they do not belong, motionless. Yet these are not restful creatures; they are sprawled across the space, often upside-down or crushing one another.

A single crab has pertinently made his escape and sits on a skirting board – much like the artist, who recently reclaimed his passport and right to travel to his first show outside of China for five years. We become part of the surveillance as we look down at the crabs, whose chaos has been frozen for our perusal. They are crafted in porcelain- a material that is inherently tough. This monitored and troubled society, much acclaimed for its fine porcelain, has a rich history and strong roots.

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Ai Weiwei, ‘He Xie’, 2011. Image copyright Ceramic Review.

The exhibition is in part about the obliteration of Chinese culture. Ai takes traditional and ancient materials and re-appropriates them in order to look and look again, telling stories untold or concealed and capturing the essence of his experiences and knowledge of both contemporary and historical China.

Coloured Vases is a recent body of work by the artist that is in a sense the culmination of his engagement with ceramics since the early ’90s. Ai purchases historic vessels in markets and from antique dealers, fascinated that the former can be full of fakes being sold as originals, which only experts may spot. The notion of forgery interests the artist and questions regarding authenticity and value drive works like the vases into being. Does their new vibrancy add value? What lies beneath the paint? We at once lose history and engage with it in a new way, spurring us to consider the tension between old and new in contemporary Chinese culture.

‘Ai Weiwei’ runs until 13 December 2015 at the RA; On Monday 19 October, art historian Craig Clunas presents The Stuff of Chinese Art at the RA – a free talk that addresses the cultural role of materials in the art of Ai Weiwei. Reservation essential.

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Co-curator Adrian Locke wrote a special piece about Ai Weiwei’s dialogue with ceramics ahead of the RA show. This can be found in the current issue of Ceramic Review, out now: