Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy is the place to be this autumn. The helpful lady vacating a space for me on the crowded bike stands turned out to be Dame Vivienne Westwood, and it made total sense to see her here; like Ai, she’s someone who makes strong comments about society in surprising artistic ways. But she’s an exception; on the whole the UK arts community and commentariat is suspicious of overt political statements by artists (including composers). Perhaps it’s easier to accept artistic political comment which is not about your own country. (This may be what led the Chinese Ambassador to describe Ai as ‘this so-called-artist’ to the BBC’s Andrew Marr.)
The explanations behind Ai’s pieces make total sense, and even if they didn’t, you could still admire the beautiful pieces and their craftsmanship; the politics is never ‘tacked on’ as it might be in many another’s work (or dare I say, composer’s programme note.) The pictured piece in the front courtyard, Tree, comments on the One China policy. Looking like a homogenous group of trees from the distance, it turns out to consist of many separate branches laboriously bolted together, as, suggests Ai, the People’s Republic’s many ethnic groups are.
Inside there was an engaged atmosphere, buzzing with conversation while not super-crowded. It reminded me that a vital part of appreciating artwork, especially as rich as this, is to witness it together with your companions, which was just what was happening here. By contrast, how many times have you lingered behind in a concert hall for a moment to exchange a few words about what you’ve just heard – only to be ushered out firmly into a cold foyer which is just waiting to be shut up? We concert goers are on the far side of artistic debate.