As Tory chancellor George Osborne drummed up British business links in China last week, one of its dissidents opened a major exhibition at London’s Royal Academy.
Ai Weiwei is perhaps best known for his artistic contribution to Beijing’s ‘Birds’ Nest’ stadium for the 2008 Olympics.
He notoriously filled the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern with millions of porcelain, hand-painted ‘Sunflower Seeds’ between 2010 and 2011. They were produced by 1,600 workers in the village of Jingdezhen.
Yet during that exhibition, Weiwei disappeared. China's state forces held him under close guard for 81 days and told him he may never be released.
His recreation of this experience ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.’ is included in this retrospective that looks at his work since 1993.
The largest floor space is filled with ‘Straight’. Ninety tons of steel rods from schools in the Sichuan province devastated by earthquakes in 2008 were reclaimed surreptitiously and straightened to form an undulating wave.
The walls chart the names of some of the dead that officials refused to document.
But there are many contradictions about this event.
It will be a big money-spinner for a very conservative institution, bolstering the notion that the West is the home of artistic freedom.
Yet the work is underwhelming. There is nothing as breathtaking as ‘Sunflower Seeds’. Many of the pieces are shallow jokes or simplistic metaphors.
‘Straight’ is neither beautiful nor eloquent, asking many more questions than it answers. Why straighten the rods?
Ai Weiwei is a true hero. It’s a shame this show doesn’t do him justice.