The London Royal Academy of Art’s Ai Weiwei retrospective, which opens on September 19 and continues until December 13, has been lauded by critics ahead of its launch, with the Chinese artist back in the United Kingdom for the first time in four years.
The exhibition showcases some of his most important works from the last 22 years, and feature art relating to his time in jail and the Sichuan earthquake, not to mention 3,000 porcelain crabs.
The repeated use of the crab, which in Mandarin is a homonym for "harmony" – a word much used in Chinese government circles – and simultaneously used on the Internet in China as slang for censorship, demonstrates Ai's critique of the Chinese State through the "cumulative effect of minimalism and conceptualism”.
The retrospective is one of the most important exhibitions of the renowned Chinese artist’s work in recent years, not least because it has coincided with the unexpected return of the artist’s passport by Chinese authorities after four years, enabling him to travel to London for the opening and even assist with the final preparation of the exhibition.
Ai’s passport was confiscated by Chinese authorities in 2011 when he was secretly detained over a contested tax bill. In May 2011 Ai was elected an honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Arts as an act of support and solidarity from his fellow artists.
He announced the return of his passport on July 21 of this year in an Instagram post to his 111,000 followers with a picture himself holding his passport and the words “Today, I got my passport.”
Then, Theresa May was forced to intervene and apologise after Ai was granted a 20-day visa, rather than the usual six months, on the basis that he had failed to disclose a criminal conviction, although he has never been charged. The public outcry saw the decision swiftly rectified.
In a recent interview Ai acknowledged that had the Chinese government left him alone he would not have achieved worldwide notoriety and would have easily disappeared - this show, meanwhile, will make sure that he will be remembered.
Today, Ai and fellow artist Anish Kapoor joined hands as they strode down London’s Piccadilly at the beginning of an eight-mile walk to show solidarity with refugees around the world.
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