The five years since Ai Weiwei unveiled his installation of porcelain Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern have been truly momentous and troubling times for the Chinese artist. Not only was that the last time he had a passport and was free to travel to one of his own shows (he has had maybe 100 in the intervening period), but his world-famous name has barely been whispered in his own country since. Yet his homeland provides much of the impetus and thematic content for a major Royal Academy exhibition, which begins with a forest of petrified tree parts from the mountainous south and a giant extruded map of China’s capacious borders, before leading visitors through the ruins of an ancient temple and past the remains of schools flattened by the devastating earthquake of 2008.
It is arguably this latter work, entitled Straight (2008–12) – a monumental wave of steel bars salvaged from the gnarled wreckages of the Sichuan earthquake, painstakingly hammered back to their original state by hand – which landed Ai Weiwei in an unmarked prison for 81 days of interrogation. Much of the accompanying citizen’s investigation that uncovered the names of 5,000 children who died because their schools were inadequately built is also on display here; again, as much a provocation as a work of art. Evidence of his secret incarceration is also on show in the dioramas of S.A.C.R.E.D (2012) – six boxes containing scenes describing the conditions he was put under (the title standing for 'Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy and Doubt').
What elevates this show beyond the political, emotional or merely personal, however, is the artist’s meditations on normal life given a transformative, material twist – a child’s buggy stranded in a sea of marble grass, a sex toy carved from priceless jade, or a simple bicycle, conjoined with others to form a glamorous chandelier. Ai Weiwei is nothing if not contradictory: part destructive force – when smashing a Han dynasty pot, for example – and part keeper of traditional Chinese crafts and antiques, through his modified and mutated Ming furniture. Long may the dissent continue.