In Review

Ai Weiwei's Royal Academy exhibit has 'powerful impact' on critics

Chinese dissident artist personally supervises London exhibit for first time in five years

Ai Weiwei's new major retrospective at the Royal Academy has been described as "momentous" by critics.

It is the first time in five years that the Chinese dissident artist has been able to supervise a London exhibition. The Chinese authorities confiscated his passport in 2011, returning it earlier this year.

The exhibition, which opens to the public on Sunday, showcases some of his most important works from the last 22 years.

Racing between his time in jail, the Sichuan earthquake and 3,000 porcelain crabs, it is at once both "momentous" and "moving", according to Adrian Searle in The Guardian.

The repeated use of the crab, which in Mandarin is a homonym for "harmony" – a word much used in Chinese government circles – and simultaneously used on the internet in China as a slang for censorship, demonstrates Weiwei's critique of the Chinese State through the "cumulative effect of minimalism and conceptualism". The result, said the BBC, is to show us what it feels like "to be disappeared".

Mathew Collings in the Evening Standard says it is "high on spectacle", but questions whether the blockbuster show of the year lives up to the hype. In this country at least, Weiwei's notoriety as a figure "known for his head-banging amazing bravery in provoking and standing up to the Chinese government hasn't been matched by knowledge of his art". This show at least is an attempt to correct the balance, he says.

Giving it five stars, Mark Hudson at the Daily Telegraph agrees that this "substantial retrospective" presents our first real opportunity to "judge Ai's work as art rather than an appendage to a news story".

The "immensely impressive" exhibition gives a "choice array of works the space to make a powerful impact", says Hudson. "You come out of it feeling you've really been somewhere, and there are few enough exhibitions you can say that about."

In a recent interview Weiwei, slightly ironically, acknowledged that had the Chinese government left him alone he would not have achieved worldwide notoriety and would have easily disappeared. This show, at least, will make sure he is remembered.

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