The road to Ai Weiwei

The road to Ai Weiwei

Tim Marlow, the new artistic director of the Royal Academy, tells John Walsh of his first meeting with the Chinese artist who is the subject of his maiden RA show

On 28 April last year, Tim Marlow, aged 51, joined the Royal Academy in London as its director of artistic programmes — a title that expanded his predecessor Kathleen Soriano’s role (director of exhibitions) to take in collections, research, learning, public talks and architecture. The title has since been refined to artistic director, but it’s clear that the RA expects him to have an executive role in a dozen areas, in the run-up to its 250th anniversary celebrations in 2018.

They couldn’t have picked a more driven multi-tasker. Whirling dervishes from the Ottoman courts, were they in Piccadilly today, would gaze in astonishment at Marlow’s dizzying prolificity in journalism, broadcasting, education, publishing and gallery management.

He has presented TV and radio arts programmes for 20 years, made more than 100 documentaries on subjects from Holbein to Hockney, founded Tate magazine, and written umpteen books and catalogues. For more than a decade, he was in charge of exhibitions at White Cube, Jay Jopling’s cutting-edge contemporary art gallery, which he guided towards becoming a global entity, with sister spaces opening in São Paulo and Hong Kong in 2012.

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle, 2014. Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style. 51 x 41 x 0.8 cm. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Having settled in at the RA, Marlow is about to launch his first major exhibition: the work of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who was imprisoned without charge in 2011 and released on condition that he should give up his passport. A thorn in the Chinese government’s side for two decades, he has made sculpture, woodwork, photography, video and installations, often on a massive scale, while effectively under house arrest.

The exhibition, described by the London Evening Standard as ‘the most anticipated art show of the year’, is a huge enterprise — a single-artist show that will occupy the Royal Academy’s main galleries, as did the works of David Hockney, Anish Kapoor and Anselm Keifer in recent years — and the first major institutional survey of Ai’s work ever seen in the UK.

It wasn’t difficult to find his studio because he hangs Chinese lanterns beside the surveillance cameras

‘Why Ai Weiwei?’ asks Marlow. ‘First, he’s one of the most celebrated artists in the world, but few people in the UK have seen his work, aside from his Sunflower Seeds at the Turbine Hall. Second, Royal Academicians have made him an Honorary RA in support of his political position and the restraints on his creative freedom. Third, since he wasn’t travelling, I thought he might have time to do it.’

Ai Weiwei, Video Recorder, 2010. Marble, 43 x 19 x 19 cm. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera, 2010. Marble, 39.2 x 39.8 x 19 cm. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Word reached Marlow that Ai was interested but wanted to see a plan of the proposed exhibition. ‘So I flew to Beijing with the plan and went to find his gallery. It wasn’t difficult because he hangs Chinese lanterns beside the surveillance cameras. Outside, there’s a sign with his company name, Fake, and a bicycle — he puts flowers into the basket every day as a symbol of hope. The doors open, you go into a beautifully designed courtyard, and meet this larger-than-life figure with his great big face.’

Their momentous first meeting wasn’t without its light moments. ‘I was thinking to myself, nobody in the world knows I’m here,’ says Marlow. ‘Then a painter friend, Johnny Yeo, texted me to say, “Tim, since you’re with Ai Weiwei, can you ask him if there’s a chance he could sit for me?” I said, “How did you know I was with him?” He said, “He’s just Instagrammed a picture of you riding around his studio.” From that minute on, I thought, Ai is clearly not that bothered if the authorities know who’s coming to see him.’

One piece contains 200 tons of steel rods from collapsed buildings and is reportedly the heaviest sculpture ever shown at the Royal Academy

Ai’s studio advised Marlow that some things shouldn’t be discussed on the phone or in emails. But the censorship of Ai’s actual work wasn’t as stringent as he’d been expecting. ‘Catalogue essays critical of the Chinese authorities have been sent through his computer without being intercepted,’ says Marlow. ‘And shipping his artworks out of China isn’t hard as long as you leave enough time and the galleries mark the stuff “materials”. I think the government is more keen to control Ai’s reputation inside China.’ Evidence to back this assertion arrived with the recent news that the Chinese authorities have at last returned his passport, and that he will be travelling to London for his show.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Interestingly, Ai doesn’t want to show a lot of his early work. ‘I never made much art before 2000,’ he told Marlow. But the exhibition does feature work from 1985 (Hanging Man, a profile of Marcel Duchamp made from a coat hanger) and from the end of Ai’s stay in New York in 1993. ‘In the smaller galleries,’ says Marlow, ‘there’ll be terracotta pieces, the Han dynasty urn, some paintings, and a room of marble pieces: marble grass, nine inches tall, a marble surveillance camera, a pushchair made of marble…

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-12. Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

‘Then there are big set pieces, like the two shown in Venice: Straight has 200 tons of steel rods from buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It got Ai into trouble with the police for naming the victims’ names.’ This will reportedly be the heaviest sculpture ever shown at the RA.

‘And Sacred involves six oxidized metal blocks that resemble altars: you look into each block through a little peephole, and see six vignettes of Ai’s time in prison,’ continues Marlow. ‘Each shows a guard with him as he eats, defecates, sleeps, reads or whatever. There’s an element of Christian tradition here — of the Stations of the Cross.’

Sacred will be installed in a room with extraordinary wallpaper, a pattern of gold handcuffs and bird-like forms, through which Ai’s face looks out. A popular installation — it was funded by 1,300 Kickstarter backers to the tune of £123,000 — will be a mini-forest of nine trees, made from composite fragments of ancient trees bolted together and displayed in the Courtyard alongside a black marble couch for punters to sit on, under the gesticulating arms of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Visitors to the Octagon, meanwhile, will find a resplendent chandelier suspended from the ceiling, made of bicycles. Marlow wriggles with glee about the first major project of his reign. (He has a student-ish sense of humour: ‘We’re not doing this the RA way,’ he told a sceptical journalist at the announcement of the exhibition, ‘we’re doing it the Ai Weiwei way.’)

And among his future plans will be a nod to his first-ever art experience. ‘We’re going to do a show about Salvador Dalí,’ he says. ‘I think he was a misunderstood artist, despite being a flagrant self-promoter. It shows Dalí in a kind of conversation with another artist. I can’t say more than that, except that it’s going to be brilliant. I’m not curating it, so I can say that.’

And with that, the dervish of Burlington House flashes a smile and whizzes off to his next appointment.

Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy from 19 September to 13 December. A longer version of this interview appears in the October 2015 edition of Christie’s Magazine, published on 2 October. Main image at top: Ai Weiwei in his studio in Beijing, taken in April 2015. Photo © Harry Pearce/Pentagram, 2015


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