A week ago I stayed up with Ai Wei Wei. London’s Royal Academy of Arts opened its doors for the weekend to all who came. At five in the afternoon I saw the line snaking through the courtyard, onto Piccadilly as I drove past on the way to meet some friends. At midnight we all arrived, ready to burn a little night oil in the pursuit of art. One friend asked at the underground the time of the last train. I asked for the first in the morning. And that’s how it went.
As we traversed the courtyard I felt a surge of energy hit me in the solar plexus: a bolt of power from the giant tree grove, made from collected tree parts from all over China. We forged ahead through the inevitable security checks, which now pepper social interaction in the city and stepped into a dazzling world of light and ideas and strange, wonderful forms. Chairs tumbled through the air in a balletic circle, giant pillars intersected small tables, the corners of objects took on more importance than the front of them. Tiny tableaux told a story of incarceration, and surveillance. We watched films, listened to commentaries on iPods and generally interacted with the exhibit in the prescribed way for several hours. Inspiring and even harrowing details about Ai Wei Wei’s life of protest gave each one there an aura of intense fixation.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, the atmosphere changed, perhaps it was after that last train had gone. The waves of art-lovers grew quieter and a change set in. The sort of magical hush that one feels in a special place in nature, like the bluebell woods I once happened upon by chance, or the enchanted yew forest I was taken to at night by a friend. The sense of magic and poetry, no matter how hard the subject, was palpable. Along with the anguish portrayed in some of the exhibits, there was a curious calm and implacability, exemplified perhaps in the straightening of steel building material, twisted in an earthquake into hundreds or thousands of identical bars and laid in piles.
The atmosphere became lighter, people began to drift in pairs and small groups, wander languidly on their own as the need for hurry passed. We were committed, there was no retreat. There was nowhere else we’d rather be. People sat on the floor, crouched down on all fours to take pictures, even laid on their backs under the chandelier bicycle culture, watching its crystals glitter and dance. At one point, while I was peering into the tiny cell reconstructions of scenes from Ai Wei Wei’s life, which reminded me somehow of the panelled triptychs of Mediaeval times, I heard a voice in the distance and went to investigate. Loud and pure, the tones of a soprano floated on a sine wave through the gallery and we all sat, entranced in untidy heaps on the vast gallery floor.
The unknown singer gave her beautiful, melancholy performance without microphone, enhancement, or even a regular audience. We were spellbound. The whole night was magical, from the silent dancers in the courtyard, the mysterious, computer-generated music in the cafe at dawn, the security attendant who got me a glass of water, so I wouldn’t have to leave the gallery, to the guards on bag check, who, when I left at 8 in the morning, urged me to go back in and make sure I’d seen everything. Everyone was excited to be there on this last night, dwarfed and amazed by the monumental works of Ai Wei Wei.
As one store attendant described it, being with art like this at night really puts you in the zone. As we left the building and stepped towards Piccadilly, a lone figure scurried up to us in the biting wind, “Is this the way to Ai Wei Wei?”
The experience had a profound effect upon me and I loved the exhibition so much, I went back a few days later to revisit the magic forest outside. Sublime.
Ai Wei Wei
Photographs: Dear Velvet