Ai Weiwei

an exhibition at the Royal Academy


The bolted together trees in the courtyard only brought some response from me when I noticed that the statue Sir Joshua Reynolds seems to be conducting them in some clumping dance.

The approach to all exhibitions at the RA gives a grand feel to the occasion. This is rather spoilt by the bag search and, in this case, the rather pompous ticket hall staff, who gave off the feel that we were being shown a great favour in being allowed to spend a small fortune on the tickets.

So again a grand arrival up the stairs. Some confusion followed as the RA now seem to have adopted a free for all system of various people taking ones tickets by milling around the entrance room crowds.

In the exhibition I estimate that perhaps 75% of visitors were wearing headsets. And around 33% spent most of their time taking photographs.

And so on in. I did my usual thing of travelling slowly around the whole show, having refused the ‘audio guide’, without looking at the labels and looking intensely at the objects and their setting. I then made my way round again reading the large labels. This is a bad sign for me because if the art has done it’s stuff then I don’t need to read the labels. Here it is essential. At the end of these two tours it seemed to me that Ai Wei Wei is a marvellous man. He is brave and noble. His passionate political stance is powerfully expressed in these rooms.  But he is no artist.

None of these works could possibly work without the labels or the audio commentary. They cannot speak for themselves. And although some make a big impression because of their scale, taken as just objects they have almost nothing to offer. If that is case then why make them? All the messages – and that is what they are – could quite easily have been made in a documentary on Chinese oppression, which it could be argued would reach a wider audience. The work in no way gave a ‘feel’ of the oppression – just knowledge of it and knowledge can be passed in many ways, some possibly more effective than big art shows.

So we had the grand RA entrance to what to me was a set of works of minimal aesthetic quality and a display of an admirable political stance, made to feel overblown and pretentious, even egotistic, by the scale of it all. Steve Bell can create a more powerful and accessible protest in a single Guardian cartoon.