Ai Weiwei is arguably the world’s most famous living artist but he is also the most outspoken. The Chinese dissident’s art is all about speaking out. He is openly critical of the Chinese government’s stance on democracy and human rights. For this, he has been beaten, detained and had his passport taken away.
His current exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London is on the must-see list of every art lover. But would you take your children to see it?
In fact, it’s children who have shown us just how important it is for artists to have the right to free speech.
Over the last couple of weeks, children from all over the world have been donating their Lego bricks to Ai Weiwei so that he can create a new piece of work defending freedom of speech. Weiwei recently announced on Instagram that the Lego company had refused to sell him a bulk order of bricks for a new installation he was planning for his upcoming exhibition in Melbourne. The Danish company said that it did not want its product associated with works of a political nature.
As one Australian child said, “Everyone deserves to make what they want with Lego.” Offers to donate Lego have poured in from all over the world and Weiwei has placed collection points in cities worldwide. A second-hand BMW car is now parked in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London. You can just throw your Lego bricks in through the sunroof.
Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy is the sort of exhibition that engages children every bit as much as adults. They are fascinated from the moment they walk into the courtyard and see the small forest of dead trees bolted together from discarded boughs from trees in the mountains of China, together with an armchair just calling out to be sat on.
Children engage with stories and Ai Weiwei’s art is made out of stories. The story of how his Shanghai studio was demolished by the authorities in 2011. How he was under house arrest at the time but invited 800 supporters to feast on river crabs, a traditional symbol of tyranny. You can watch the video of the demolition and see the huge pile of porcelain crabs Weiwei created in the corner of the room.
My children loved how Weiwei creates new, strikingly beautiful pieces out of something else. The stunning chandelier made out of bicycles, the 2,000-year-old urn with Coca Cola written on it, the Quing stools strung together in a spiral, a marble pushchair and a pair of handcuffs made out of jade. Weiwei’s art is big and powerful. In ‘Fragments’, you can walk underneath the pillared structure made out of the wooden beams from four temples.
In ‘Straight’ you come face to face with the shocking. The names of over 5,000 children who died in Sichuan’s 2008 earthquake. The devastating effects of the earthquake were suppressed by the authorities as it highlighted corruption and shoddy building methods. Ai Weiwei carried out his own investigation, recording the names of the victims and collecting 90 tonnes of steel bars from their collapsed schools. Each damaged bar was straightened by hand in his studio and have been placed here like a giant wave landscape in the gallery next to photos of the children’s abandoned rucksacks among the piles of rubble. It’s all the more powerful for children as the tragedy is something that happened in their own lifetime.
My own children were able to get some sense of Weiwei’s time in a Chinese jail in S.A.C.R.E.D. Weiwei was jailed for almost three months in 2011 and he has recreated his experience in the six large iron boxes which show half life-sized figures of the artist and the two guards who were with him constantly, forbidden to speak to him.
Weiwei has recreated every detail of his cell from memory: the bed, the table, the wardrobe, the tiny bathroom, all covered in a thick layer of plastic. We queued up to stand on a footstool and peer inside each one of the boxes. In one, you watch the guards standing over him while he’s sleeping; in another, he’s eating a meal; in the third, he’s having a shower.
“Look, they’re even watching him on the toilet!” My sons were incredulous. We felt as if we were spying on the artist too, peering at him through the window or over the top of the box. But Weiwei has also put us in the position of spying on the guards and the Chinese government’s decision to imprison him.
It’s an exhibition which forces us all to confront uncomfortable realities. Children are often the first to question injustice. It’s no wonder they’re queueing up to donate their Lego.
The Ai Weiwei exhibition is on at the Royal Academy of Arts until 13th December. A drop-in art workshop for families inspired by Ai Weiwei’s work is taking place this coming Sunday, 15th November, from 11am until 3pm.
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