Artlyst Photo Special: Ai Weiwei’s Political Detention Detailed At The Royal Academy




Artlyst recently attended the press view of the Royal Academy of Arts’ landmark exhibition of the Honorary Royal Academician, Ai Weiwei. The exhibition will include significant works from 1993 onwards, the date that marks Ai Weiwei’s return to China following more than a decade living in New York. The dissident artist has created new, site-specific installations and interventions throughout the Royal Academy’s spaces – including the addition of a particularly poignant installation documenting his period of Chinese detention.

Image: Ai Weiwei 
S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011-2013. Photo P A Black © Artlyst 2015.

In 2011, Ai was beaten and detained for 81 days by the Chinese authorities and his passport confiscated. In an act of solidarity and support from his fellow artists and architects, Ai was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Arts in May 2011. The series of rectangular prison cells that form the installation allow the viewer to see inside the spaces via prison-door-style slits in the walls and ceilings.

Image: Ai Weiwei 
S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011-2013. Photo P A Black © Artlyst 2015.

Upon which the viewer is met with amshockingly detailed diorama of the horrors of the artist’s detention. Including the ever-present intimidation of his guards – never more than a metre away – the six fibreglass dioramas of the artist’s work S.A.C.R.E.D. depict painstakingly detailed scenes of how Ai spent daily life in incarceration for 81 days of his life, believing that he might remain under lock and key for as much as a decade.

Image: Ai Weiwei 
S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011-2013. Photo P A Black © Artlyst 2015.

The works present intimate moments of him sleeping, being interrogated by officers, being watched as he eats food and even scrutinised while using the toilet. The minutiae, from the clothes hanging in his closet to the white padding on his cell walls, were reconstructed from Ai’s memory.

Image: Ai Weiwei 
S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011-2013. Photo P A Black © Artlyst 2015.

Ai was watched constantly during his detention under obsessive surveillance at a very close proximity. Through his dioramas the artist upturns this situation, having the viewers watch the guards who are in turn watching him. Viewers must step on a block and peer through a small slit on top of each box to view the lifelike dioramas of the political prisoner inside the walls of his padded prison cell.

Image: Ai Weiwei 
S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011-2013. Photo P A Black © Artlyst 2015.

The artist was outraged by the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed more than 5,000 children as schools buildings collapsed, Ai spoke out and denounced shoddy construction practices and corruption as the cause of the deaths.

Image: Ai Weiwei 
S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011-2013. Photo P A Black © Artlyst 2015.

The artist’s activism lead the Chinese authorities to arrest Ai for alleged tax evasion and hold the artist in solitary detention. Once released, Ai decided to expose the authorities’ methods by recreating his traumatic experience in painstaking detail. “I memorised every crack in the ceiling, every mark on the wall. I’m an artist and architect, so I have a good memory for these things,” Ai told a reporter.

Image: Ai Weiwei 
S.A.C.R.E.D. 2011-2013. Photo P A Black © Artlyst 2015.

Photos P A Black © Artlyst 2015

Ai Weiwei: Royal Academy of Arts – 19 September to 13 December 2015


Related Posts

Terrance M Ffyfe - New Paintings
Sacred Art of the Silk Road: Dunhuang's Buddhist Cave Temples
Charlie Smith London - Open call for Anthology 2017
Open Source Salon with Hauser and Wirth - A new monthly discussion group
Advertise your next show on Artlyst from £200 per week