Material wealth – Ai Weiwei at Royal Academy of Arts

Straight installation view

Everyone loves a good blockbuster. And Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts from 19 September — 13 December, with a broad and evocative selection of works by the artist, does the job nicely. The curators have selected and presented the exhibition with a fine sense of the ebb and flow of emotions that the works provoke in visitors.

The first space that really resonates at an emotional level is the hall with Straight in it. If you’re unsure of the reason for Ai’s troubled relationship with the Chinese government, then this room’s video and installation explicitly lays that open for you. The twisted rebars (Ai and his team purchased over 200 tons of them, clandestinely) are the remnants of steel used in of sub-standard buildings that totally failed to do their job during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They’re laid out in the hall (in fact, it’s just over 90 tons of them – the RA floors aren’t that strong). The video documentary that accompanies the work is about the earthquake and the corruption in local government that led to the deaths of so many people, including children in government built schools. There are images shown that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.

A ton of tea. Compressed Pur Er tea Dimensions: 100 x 100 x 100 cm
A ton of tea. Compressed Pur Er tea Dimensions: 100 x 100 x 100 cm

Elsewhere, A ton of tea* displays Weiwei’s more subtle nuances and his appreciation of texture and sensory playfulness. It smelled beautiful and I couldn’t help nosing in for a good whiff. Which got one of the already twitchy guards on his heels. But frankly I always have that affect on guardians of the gallery.

The range of materials is a joy throughout the well curated show, and there’s plenty of humour (sex toys!) along with the serious work. Each work serves its purpose well, and there’s never any doubt that the material and the form are serving the purpose of the message.

But then again, you could never accuse Ai Weiwei of a hidden agenda. Or subtlety. The videos and the installations (particularly the maquettes portraying his time in jail, under 24 hour surveillance) lay out the troubled relationship of communism and human rights violations in China, while his commentary on contemporary and traditional arts can provoke controversy for, frankly not always the best reasons.

Perhaps we get the contemporary artists that we deserve? Weiwei’s often ham-fisted commentaries have something of the 90s YBA about them: a single punchline that delivers a clear message to even the most jaded (jade: China –geddit?) gallery visitor. But it could be that we need our art to be this blatant and clear cut. We can all get behind his message and nod our heads, stroke our chins and really feel like we’re on the right side of moral outrage. Perhaps Ai Weiwei is art for people who don’t like Banksy.

*Fact fans: At ton of tea is in fact a ton of compressed Pur Er tea with dimensions: 100 x 100 x 100 cm and Art Fund grant of£132,896 [source: Art Fund website ]