Just after the end of term, a big group of Ertegun scholars went to see two temporary exhibitions in London: an ample selection of Goya’s portraits at the National Gallery, and a major survey of Ai Weiwei’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts. That was, of course, a rather unlikely combination – and upon leaving the dazzling Goya exhibition, I asked myself whether Ai Weiwei’s installations stood a chance to match it. Even more so given that there were several sceptics among us, who had seen Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at Blenheim Palace last year and found it rather disappointing. This time round, however, we opted for some additional preparation: a few days before the London trip, we hosted Prof. Craig Clunas at the Ertegun House. Prof. Clunas is an art historian here at Oxford, and his work focuses on Chinese art of the Ming period, but he also has a keen interest in contemporary Chinese art, including Ai Weiwei. In his talk, Prof. Clunas introduced the artist and discussed the reception of his works in China and abroad. He also talked about several installations that we were to see in the London exhibition, adding a wealth of illuminating contextual information. It proved to be an invaluable preparation for our experience of Ai Weiwei’s work.
Finally the time had come, and we stood in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts, peering at the first two exhibits displayed there: eight huge tree-like structures assembled from pieces of dead wood collected all over southern China, and a marble couch that looked as though it was made of black leather. Taken together, the tree installation and the marble couch formed an excellent introduction to the main part of the exhibition housed in the stately halls of the Royal Academy: these two works evoke Ai Weiwei’s long-standing interest in the imperialist project of nation-building in China, and in the status of material reality in the capitalist era. The descriptions accompanying the installations and artistic objects showcased in the exhibition helped us explore the ways in which these two interrelated themes resurface time and again in Ai Weiwei’s works.
The need for contextual information was particularly clear in the case of “Straight” – an installation that consists of an imposing stack of carefully arranged reinforcement rods. Visitors who approached it seemed baffled at first, but almost everyone lingered in the room and gradually discovered the horrifying story behind the installation. The reinforcement rods came from the ruins of school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai Weiwei and other political activists attempted to investigate the circumstances that had led to so many casualties among schoolchildren. The earthquake unmasked the extent of corruption and bad governance in the region, which had resulted in the extreme shabbiness of the public school buildings. Since the authorities were reluctant to put together a list of casualties, Ai Weiwei’s team decided to do it themselves. The tons of rebar that they had collected in Sichuan, and then meticulously straightened before arranging it into the shape of a harrowing landscape, parallel their effort to preserve the memory about the children who perished in the earthquake.
The emotional intensity inherent in “Straight” made a huge impression on me. It encapsulates the critical force of Ai Weiwei’s oeuvre – which ultimately overpowered even the sceptics among us, as I gathered from our conversations on the way back to Oxford.