Ai Weiwei – reviews of Chinese artist's 'poignant' UK shows

May 28, 2014

Two powerful new shows by the dissident artist remind us of his fighting spirit, say critics

Courtesy of YSP © Jonty Wilde

What you need to know
Two new exhibitions of work by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei have opened in Britain, one at the Lisson Gallery in London, the other at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. Ai Weiwei is known for his sculpture, installation, architecture, photography and film, but is most famous for his criticism of the Chinese government, which has resulted in his persecution and imprisonment. He is currently undergoing house detention, and is prohibited from travelling outside Beijing.

Ai's Lisson Gallery show presents objects recalling his incarceration in 2011, including a set of handcuffs carved out of jade, and marble lanterns representing the CCTV cameras watching his house. His show at the YSP features installations and sculptures including a three-dimensional map of China constructed from ironwood salvaged from temples and a tree made from iron.

The Lisson Gallery show runs until 19 July; the YSP show runs until 2 November.

What the critics like
Ai's art has an elegiac quality that also "transcends his own political struggle to touch upon broader issues", says Alastair Sooke in the Daily Telegraph. And while his work can appear sleek and calm – beneath the polished surfaces, it has a punkish, fighting spirit, derived from the fire in the artist's belly that can never be extinguished.

The works at the Lisson Galery - a sculpture made of bicycles, a marble gas mask and lantern - are "archetypal Ai", says Ben Luke in the Evening Standard. They draw us into Ai's daily existence but also the wider situation in China, confronting injustice and showing resistance in the face of adversity.

Ai Weiwei's Iron Tree sculpture represents a vision of hope. It is "majestically beautiful" and a coup for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, says Laura Cumming in The Observer. Art can take you anywhere, but it can also bring the lives of others home to you: here is a fragment of China, and of Ai's endurance in that faraway land, suddenly appearing on a green hill in Yorkshire

What they don't like
Critics have nothing negative to say about Ai Weiwei's work but Maev Kennedy points out in The Guardian that his two powerful UK shows are "poignant" because they have both had to be organised with his studio in Beijing via email. The artist himself cannot travel and can rarely even speak on the phone.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Read more: