An email dropped into my inbox the other day from the Royal Academy of Art (RA) in London, which like everything else has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic. The email announced that the RA was reopening (hurray!), and also invited me to experience the Academy’s 2015 exhibition of Ai WeiWei’s work in a “360 degree immersive tour of the galleries“, together with commentary from curators – plus the newsreader Jon Snow. I quite like Jon Snow, so how could I resist?!

Seriously though, I had been intending to cover Ai WeiWei for my “China artist”, so I clicked on the link. I had expected slightly more tech than I got: the 360 degree claim is a little over-stated, as it only applies to certain clickable areas, and I’d imagined I’d somehow be able to be transported around the exhibition more or less at will, from any imaginable angle.

The work itself is really interesting. Ai WeiWei is a prolific conceptual artist, well-known as a proponent of freedom of expression, who stands in opposition to the ideals of the prevailing regime in China. He is no doubt China’s most famous contemporary artist, and his biography is fascinating, and makes his political sensibilities seem almost inevitable.

I’ve not encountered much of his art work in real life, though I did visit the Tate Modern’s Sunflower Seeds installation almost a decade ago (and I believe my mum still has a pilfered porcelain sunflower seed from that very exhibition, tut tut). Each of the 100 million life-sized seeds that filled the Tate’s massive Turbine Hall appeared to be identical, but was, in fact, carefully hand-made and painted in Chinese workshops by skilled craftspeople. The Sunflower Seeds installation challenged the ubiquitous ‘Made in China’ label and the geopolitics of cultural and economic activity.

In 2011 Ai WeiWei was arrested at Beijing airport and imprisoned for 81 days, accused of so-called economic crimes. He subsequently created a six-part diorama documenting his time in prison, S.A.C.R.E.D., depicting himself and his guards, encased in steel boxes. The installation forced the viewer into the uncomfortable role of voyeur of degradation and powerless bystander.

He is currently on show at the Imperial War Museum in London, with History of Bombs, in which the museum’s atrium has been given over to an artist for the first time. The work promises to continue Ai WeiWei’s interrogation of political freedoms and strictures, and the impact of state power at the individual and societal level, through an exploration of migratory flows. Ai WeiWei himself feels that he has been forced into exile, of course – after finally regaining his passport from the Chinese authorities in 2015 he moved his family to Europe.

An exhibit in the 2015 RA show that I viewed online is an exquisitely crafted marble pushchair, and a marble camera (2014). Ai WeiWei recalls walking with his son in parks, visiting restaurants, and then becoming aware of a man taking photos. When he challenged the man, he claimed to be simply a tourist, but after angrily taking his memory card, Ai WeiWei discovered image after image of his child at the family’s regular haunts – it was at that point that Ai WeiWei says (on a video clip on the exhibition commentary) that he “was speechless to see how a state functions, how they invade people’s privacy and how powerful they are” and became determined to remove his family from China.

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