Start the day in Brixton at the Starbucks next to the tube station. The coffee’s ok but the sausage buttie is as dismal as expected. It’s quite a while since I’ve tried one of these but after the first bite I immediately recall just how bland they are. The woman behind the counter who takes my order is very pleasant but also very busy so, while she asks me twice what coloured sauce I’d like, when I get my roll, it’s the wrong one. At the risk of spoiling a future Danny Baker appearance, I prefer the red, which I find has a slightly less metallic aftertaste than the brown. There’s absolutely no point in going for the ‘no sauce’ option for without any condiment accompaniment the buttie would have no taste at all. The roll has a sort of doughy texture and a slight hint of flour flavouring but I’m sure it’s safe for anyone with gluten intolerance or any other allergies, since it seems to be manufactured from some sort of extruded, industrial play-doh. As for the actual sausages, they’re don’t even taste of the gristle, bristle, ground-up bones and rusks from which the cheap supermarket ones are constructed. Do you remember the hoohah a few years ago about all those rubber bands that postmen used to leave lying on the pavement? Well, you don’t see so many of them anymore and rumour has it that Starbucks won the contract to collect and recycle them.
At any rate, I leave Starbucks with a bounce in my step but, sadly, none of the local musicians are around to provide a musical accompaniment. The last time I was in Brixton there was a real multicultural world music battle of the bands going on with a couple of East Europeans bashing away on accordions to produce a jazzed up version of Jacques Brel’s morbid chanson Les Feuilles Mortes, while the guys with the steel drums were hammering out Ary Barroso’s samba classic Brazil.
Get the tube to Green Park and walk to the biggest show in town – Ai Weiwei’s retrospective at the Royal Academy. It’s had terrific reviews and it only runs for another couple of weeks so it’s a very pleasant surprise to find that there’s no queue to get tickets and I can walk straight in. This time my trusty Art Fund card only takes off a couple of pounds which means I still have to pay £15 – ouch! Is it worth it? To be brutally honest, I’d say no. The show’s pretty good and, despite the number of visitors, it’s displayed well enough to be easy to see all the work and read all the wall panels. But the nature of the work is sort of Political-Conceptual so you could argue that the ideas are the most important part of the art and their representation a secondary feature, and once you get the ideas it’s not all that necessary to actually see them in the flesh, as it were. That being the case, if you’re a poor student, I’d say save your money as you can wander into the RA shop and flick through the catalogue to get a reasonable feel for what he’s up to. You can also get to see a couple of his works for free by having a look at the tree sculpture in the RA courtyard and, if you walk up the main staircase, you’ll notice that the Turner statue has been replaced by a small marble carving of a CCTV camera – a very typical example of Weiwei’s art.
What else do you get if you choose to pay to have a proper look? Well, there are several very large installations, the hallmark of an artist with global status, but while those of Anselm Kiefer, which took over the space last year, were somewhat portentous, Weiwei’s are sized appropriately. So, in his famous piece related to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, an enormous pile of rusty metal rods just about fills one of the exhibition rooms. While these would go unnoticed and look totally unremarkable lying around in a builder’s yard, here the siting and scale make a poignant monument. But if you want to know exactly what transforms these, and all the rest of the simple sculptures and objects – trees, pots, bicycles, stools, ceramic crabs – into art, then it’s necessary to read the explications written on the walls. Do that and you’ll learn that the metal rods were salvaged from the rubble of poorly constructed houses that collapsed during the earthquake. Stacking them together to create this simple memorial was Weiwei’s attempt both to commemorate the tragedy and also condemn the corruption of the cowboys whose shoddy workmanship resulted in buildings that were unable to withstand the tremors and consequently increased the death toll. Evidently, the Chinese authorities also saw the work as an implicit attack on their integrity and the competence of their governance, and it seems to have played a large part in starting their ongoing war of attrition with the artist. The resulting battle of wills, however, has been a two-way fight. So, when they tear down his newly built studio, claiming that it violated planning regulations, he simply collects parts of the wreckage and reassembles the bits into another artwork. And, as we’ve seen, when they set up CCTV monitors to spy on him, he mocks them by employing craftsmen to make marble replicas for us to symbolically return the gaze onto his oppressors. When he’s held under house arrest he uses the time to make notes of his situation so that, on release, he can arrange to have a series of scale model dioramas made showing us his gaol and his gaolers.
As for all the other items that he gathers together, each is imbued with symbolic meanings used to press home some specific conceptual point. Weiwei’s obviously on the side of the angels and his particular bugbears range from highlighting China’s lamentable human rights record, and restrictions on free speech to pointing out absurdities of financial aspects of the artworld and celebrating China’s tradition of skilful artisan craftsmanship. But if you look at the cupboard full of sand-filled glass vases, the chandelier mounted on bicycles frames, the courtyard of Frankenstein trees constructed from bits of other trees or the pile of ceramic crabs, you’re going to have to read the accompanying notes to discover which particular outrage or marvel Weiwei is condemning or celebrating.
According to the old cliché, in order for an artist to produce truly great work, first he must suffer. And while it’s true that Ai Weiwei has certainly had – and continues to have – a hard time, being constantly hassled by the Chinese authorities, by the same token it’s given him a great big target to hit with his art and he seems to relish his role as a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities. And as for as the artistic rejoinders he’s made in response to the privations he’s had to suffer, inevitably they carry with them a sense of courage and nobility. I think it’s probably just as much what the artist himself symbolises, as what any of the art he has created symbolises, that has made him so very popular and famous with western art critics, cultural commentators and the public in general. The contrast with our own namby-pamby, decadent homegrown creative could hardly be greater but if there’s a temptation to start oppressing our own artists, in order to help them make better art and be better people, then I think, on balance, we should probably try to resist. Unless one day we have our own Corbynite Cultural Revolution, none of our lot is ever going to attain Weiwei’s global artistic superstar aura but I think I probably prefer it that way.
After all that heavy Conceptual art think, I need a little simple visual refreshment and luckily some is at hand at the nearby Bernard Jacobson Gallery with a show of works on paper by the late Sam Francis. When Jackson Pollock got fed up with splashing paint about, Sam picked up the dripping baton and ran with it, making his own colourful career out of flinging pots of paint in the public’s face. Reactions to looking at his works inevitably divides the public into Whistlerites or Ruskinians and the word Marmite comes to mind, for the Franciscan creations are inevitably not going to be to everyone’s taste. For each person who looks at the random drips and dribbles of paint and enjoys an instant feeling of good cheer and irrational exuberance, there is going to be someone else muttering under their breath that their own two-year-old son or daughter makes an equivalent mess every day when rearranging or regurgitating their dinner. At the end of the day, I guess life is always just a case of red sauce or brown sauce – so go along, take a look and decide for yourself which you prefer.