The Royal Academy of Arts will welcome Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to the UK this autumn

The Royal Academy of Arts is preparing to open the latest installment in its series of solo artist exhibitions – and it’s already the most talked-about show of the year.

This September, the Royal Academy will present the first major retrospective on contemporary artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei. It follows Sunflower Seeds, Weiwei’s last major exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2010.

The presence of Weiwei’s work in the UK has sparked much speculation as the 57-year-old has not been allowed to leave China since he was arrested on charges of tax evasion in 2011. To mark the support he has received from fellow artists, he was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy in May of the same year. Tim Marlow, director of artistic programmes at the Royal Academy, has explained why it’s crucial Weiwei’s work is supported by the gallery. 

‘Ai Weiwei is one of the most important artists in the world today but his work has not been seen anywhere near as much as it should have been in the UK,’ he said in a statement. ‘This exhibition will begin to redress that balance and give an extensive new audience the chance to experience a creative phenomenon that is at once radical, political, architectural, historical, poetic, materially inventive and transformative … even before they’ve walked through the Courtyard.’

The exhibition will include significant works from 1993 onwards, as well as new, site-specific installations (pictured above). Curators have been working with Weiwei over the last 10 months via video, but it’s safe to say organising this show has presented a few technical difficulties.

‘Working with Ai Weiwei has presented us with new challenges but his ability to comprehend space, even without having experienced it first hand, and the clarity of his vision for the use of that space in relation to his work has been revelatory,’ said Adrian Locke, co-curator of the exhibition.

Work on display will reflect Weiwei’s exposure to western culture during the 12 years he spent living in New York prior to his return to China in 1993. Highlights will include Straight, an installation made of 90 tonnes of steel reinforcing rods from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which were straightened by hand in tribute to the victims of the disaster. 

Weiwei has also chosen to include Tree, an installation made up of eight individual trees from the mountains of southern China, in his show. To do this, the RA has teamed up with Kickstarter to raise £100,000 needed to make this possible. Contributors will be credited as a patron of the arts and an exhibition sponsor. 

However, as well as transporting his art, there has been another major concern in the lead-up to the exhibition opening. When the Royal Academy announced it would be showing Weiwei’s work, it was unclear whether the artist would be allowed to travel to the UK.

In late July, Charles Saumarez Smith, the RA’s secretary and chief executive, confirmed the following. ‘The Royal Academy of Arts very much welcomes news that the Home Office has now decided to grant Ai Weiwei the normal six-month business visa he originally applied for,’ Smith said. ‘We look forward to welcoming him at the Royal Academy for the opening of his major exhibition in September.’

This news has been welcomed by Weiwei’s supporters worldwide. These include fellow artist Anthony D’Angour, who completed a larger than life portrait of Weiwei in 2012. It is currently being auctioned to raise money for Amnesty International. 

‘Ai Weiwei is a great artist who, despite persecution in his own country, has triumphed over adversity because of his courage and determination,’ D’Angour told us. ‘The RA show is a marvellous manifestation of how through the power of his art he’s made a stand for freedom. The show is particularly timely as he’s been given Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience Award 2015 in recognition of his steadfastness and bravery, and the RA show in part celebrates this as well as recognising his stature as a great international artist.’

Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 19 September to 13 December 2015.

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