Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy


After our fantastic lunch at Rose Bakery, Mum and I went on to the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. I’d heard amazing things about the exhibition so was dying to see it, and happily it did not disappoint.

I was first introduced to Ai Weiwei’s work by his highly memorable sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern in 2010.  Weiwei is a fascinating artist and is considered one of the most significant cultural figures to have emerged from China in the past few decades. Known for his use of recycling, the first installation that greets your eye in the Royal Academy courtyard is an impressive avenue of trees painstakingly pieced together from parts of dead trees collected on the mountains of Southern China. Inside the exhibition, a gorgeous chandelier made with old bicycle wheels is equally dramatic.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

Many of the installations speak of Weiwei’s personal struggles as a radical artist in China: in the entrance way of one room stands a lone wall, cobbled together from the detritus of the artist’s former Shanghai studio, which was bulldozed by the authorities. Ai Weiwei threw a lunch party of river crabs to commemorate both the completion and immediate demolition of the building. Apparently, the Chinese word for river crabs, He Xie, can also mean ‘harmonious,’ a word used widely within government propaganda, but which has started to be used as internet slang for censorship. Although Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest and unable to attend the lunch, around 800 guests did go, and this event is remembered in another of the installations: hundreds of porcelain crabs tumbled in a heap, with one lone crab breaking free.

One of the most touching pieces is a room filled with the names of school children who were victims of a huge earthquake in south-western China, which caused twenty schools to collapse, killing more than 5,000 students. In China, government buildings are known for being badly and often cheaply built, and a wave of steel reinforcing bars Ai Weiwei collected from the aftermath of the earthquake and painstakingly straightened lies in silent but striking rebuke.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

I was absolutely mesmerised by this exhibition and can’t wait to go back again soon. I’ve repurchased my ‘friend’ membership at the RA just so I can go back as many times as I like without feeling guilty, and also because the Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition that is also currently showing is fabulous too (although very different!) and well worth seeing more than once as well. By the way, if you haven’t yet tried the Shenkman Bar in the Keeper’s House basement at the RA, then you definitely must! We went along for a cocktail after our tour around the exhibitions, and I loved the bar and the brilliant cocktail list. The La Dolce Vita cocktail is amazing if you’re looking for a recommendation, and I have to say the cheese straws were decidedly more-ish too!

Have you been to the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy? What did you think of it?

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