ai wei wei royal academy portrait tree
There are few art exhibitions which leave a profound impression on myself but last weekend I visited one at the Royal Academy which is one of the most thought provoking exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve been leaving snaps of some of his Artwork on my Instagram so you probably know that the artist I’m talking about is Ai Wei Wei. His work explores free speech, human rights and censorship with much of his work commenting on China. Some of you may have seen his Sunflower seeds installation at the Tate Modern in 2010 or seen his name in the news when he was detained by Chinese authorities in 2011.
ai wei wei royal academy tree

Tree (2009-2010, 2015)

It’s not easy to explain why the exhibition left such an impression but let’s start with the fact I studied History of Art at uni and not once did my parents ever discuss art with me and to be fair to them, I didn’t bother either because they wouldn’t care about the Degas, Duchamps or Damien Hirsts of the world. They didn’t really understand what I was studying and told friends and family who asked, that I was studying History. I graduated 7 years ago and this weekend was the first time my Mum has ever discussed an artist and his work. In fact, in some ways, she’s more clued up about him than I am as she only watches Chinese TV and his name has inevitably cropped up every now and then. Ai Wei Wei comments on topics she understands and has been aware of. Whilst my mum was talking and looking through my photos from the exhibition, my dad being a typical Chinese dad, grunted along in agreement while he was busy building his little model boat. So this little conversation was pretty remarkable in itself.
ai wei wei grapes royal academy

Grapes (2010)

ai wei wei coloured vases royal academy

Coloured Vases (2015) Coca Cola Vase (2014)

Similarly, I took my youngest sister along to the exhibition and I think it’s pretty hard to get an 18 year old interested in Art, let alone a sibling who is more interested in Science but she was thoroughly absorbed in the exhibition.  My sister said to me as we were walking around the exhibition, ‘Imagine if we had never left China – life would be really different’ and it definitely would be. Whilst my maternal side are from a clan that have resided in the New Territories, Hong Kong for hundreds of years, my paternal grandparents are originally from Guangzhou, China. My grandparents don’t like talking about the past as they left in a hurry during the Communist civil war but who knows what life would have been like if they had stayed. Then again, would we be aware of the corruption or even care about the government censorship? Probably not and for that reason, I know I would unlikely be a blogger just because I’m not sure I could cope with the regular blocking of social media sites.


Hong Kongers have always had a lot to say about the mainland Chinese, the government, the food scandals (fake baby food formula to name one) and corruption but I also find it challenging that at the end of the day if you’re Chinese you will have ties to China somewhere down the line. Exhibitions such as these, really question my identity and make me realise the privilege that we have living in a society where free speech is a basic human right.
Ai wei wei straight royal academy

Straight (2008-2012)

There is a lot to take in at the exhibition and I could write endlessly about them all but I was particularly overwhelmed with ‘Straight’ (2008-2012) which comments on the Sichuan 2008 earthquake. It was a devastating disaster and this piece focuses on the 5,000 school children that were killed because the school building literally crumbled due to the corruption and terrible building construction. It is a powerful installation, made up of thousands of rebar (metal rods which were used to construct the buildings) which were buckled and twisted from the earthquake but have been hammered straight and placed in a way that resembles a seismic graph. Alongside, are thousands of the deceased children’s names and a pretty harrowing video which provides a visual story to the iron bars that lie in the room. This installation completely floored me and I felt pretty emotional after realising the sheer amount of lives lost, the grief and what the rebar represented. It is not something that I can easily forget and too right, it’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten and this served as a powerful memorial. His investigations into the Sichuan disaster marks the start of his troubles with the Chinese government which features prominently in his subsequent works.
ai wei wei can royal academy

Cao (2014)

Ai wei wei royal academy bicycle chandelier

Very Yao (2009-14)

The exhibition is on until the 13th December and I’d highly recommend it and definitely don’t pass on the multi media guide which provides a fantastic guide around the exhibition. Pre-booking is absolutely necessary to secure a time slot. Also, if you have any old lego, be sure to bring it as Ai Wei Wei’s UK lego drop is situated in the courtyard beyond his Tree installation until the end of the month. If you’re interested, he is also super active on Twitter and Instagram too!