In September 2015, hot on the heels of Anselm Kiefer, David Hockney, and Anish Kapoor, the Royal Academy will present a landmark exhibition of the Honorary Royal Academician Ai Weiwei. The show is the first significant British survey of his artistic output, and will include major works spanning Ai Weiwei’s career, as well as including new work by the artist.
Having recently exhibited with the newly created Blenheim Art Foundation in its first contemporary art exhibition in the rooms and gardens of the 18th century Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill – with more than 50 artworks by the celebrated Chinese artist and social activist. This exhibition will follow in the Royal Academy’s tradition of celebrating its artist members at the very highest level.
The artist and activist has worked in a variety of different contexts, referencing Chinese art and culture through both the choice of traditional materials and interventions with original historic objects, as well as exploring international Western contemporary art. The idea of creative freedom, especially the increasingly political aspect of much of his work, will be a prominent feature and underpin much of the exhibition.
An unsurprising fact given that Ai Weiwei, the artist has variously suffered violence, detention and denial of travel rights by the Chinese authorities. The RA announced details of an exhibition that will fill its main Burlington House galleries next autumn.
Tim Marlow, who joined the RA as director of artistic programmes earlier last year, said Ai had previously not had a major institutional survey in the UK. “He has claim to be amongst the most famous, if not the most famous artist in the world, but his art is not as widely seen as one might think.”
The plan is for the exhibition is for at least three big installations, said Marlow, with old and new work, as long as the Chinese authorities allow it out of the country. “We have contingency,” he added. “We have access to work that is already out of China.”
The RA show will be far bigger. Marlow said Ai “wants the opportunity to show his work in great places and spaces – that’s how we support him.
“There is a sense of belief at this academy of creative freedom. We believe in the independence and creative freedom of artists and it seems to me Ai is an artist we should be backing.”
As a political activist,the artist has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. Ai has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In 2011, following the artist’s arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes”.
As a globally-recognised social activist, Ai Weiwei has not been able to leave China since 2011 when his passport was confiscated by Chinese authorities. Yet the 57-year-old artist remains hopeful that he will be allowed to travel for the opening of the “landmark” exhibition, which will include a selection of new work, along with some of his most notable pieces, in September of this year.
Ai Weiwei Royal Academy 19 September – 13 December 2015