I didn’t expect a great deal from the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the RA, but I happened to be in London on the day of one of the Friends previews, so I thought I’d go. So often I am a little disappointed by contemporary art, but not this time.
For me the most moving work was Straight (see below). The Sichuan earthquake of 2008 killed over 5000 children and young people when their schools collapsed. Corrupt officials had cut corners, resulting in buildings that couldn’t withstand the shock. Ai Weiwei bought salvaged rebar (the steel that runs through reinforced concrete) from the earthquake region. The pieces were twisted, but were hammered straight in his studio and used to assemble this monumental work of art. On the walls surrounding it are tables of all the names of the dead schoolchildren, which the Chinese authorities had been reluctant to reveal.
One gallery has six boxes containing half-size reconstructions of the cell in which Ai Weiwei was incarceration for 81 days and submitted to an unusual form of torture: the opposite of solitary confinement. He was watched every moment of the day and night by two silent prison guards who remained in his cell, standing close to him as he slept or ate or used the bathroom.
These were just two highlights in an exhibition full of surprises and brilliant ideas realised with consummate craftsmanship: powerful, thought-provoking, poignant. I came away deeply impressed, knowing that I had seen the work of a great artist.