Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy was a revelation to me, not only for the clarity of ideas & beauty of forms & materials, but also for the bravery of the artist’s will to creativity. [Shostakovitch, waiting nightly by the elevator for arrest – thereby not to disturb his family’s sleep – had seemed cruelly diminished by his denunciation, but Ai Weiwei seems invigorated & emboldened.] I had glanced at Ai Weiwei’s work over the years, with a cursory fly-by missing all the ideas & seeing only the surface. I’m ashamed I had illogically, rashly thought of him as self-reflective, Gavin Turk-esque, as almost narcissistic. But a close look at the RA show is humbling, & astonishing. One immediately understands his participation in his own work as instructive, illuminating, intrinsic, & political. There is a cacophony of ideas, & a fascinating enquiry into what China is, & what it is to be Chinese. We unanimously loved the show & admired the artist’s human & artistic courage.
Our resident artist Dave wondered whether Ai Weiwei was in some ways lucky to have the conditions to make such great works. This is a paradoxical notion – that an artist should consider it serendipitous to be, as it were, in the wrong place at the wrong time. [It’s chastening to think, never did a more mellifluous blues come from the South than from slavery.] Troubling though it is that one might praise oppression as a sort of creative fertilizer, tellingly little of beauty seems to grow in the garden of millionaire rock ‘n’ roll. As Jonathan Meades says: war, not necessity, is the mother of invention.
Another interesting conversation arose around the studio, & the use of assistants. This encompassed questions of ownership, authorship, the self-evidence of art, & whether outsourcing has integrity. This is a topic we continue to navigate & negotiate, with no obvious answer. We are not always comfortable that artists like (say) Warhol, Koons, Hirst explicitly affirm(ed) the delegation of execution, but equally I think we understand the ready-made iconoclasm of Duchamp & the practical need for hands-on in big projects. The straightening of steel-rods in the Ai Weiwei tofu-dreg pieces is undoubtedly part of the concept, & thus the assistants & the man-hours intrinsically become an invisible part of the work.
Not noticeably subjugated, the Kensal Review were nevertheless also reinvigorated & in rude health. Babbling & excitable, with lush supper courtesy of Milly, the boys were buff & the girls were gorgeous. What a downer it was Anne Tyler properly pooped our party. Unanimity again, but this time we weren’t happy. Those who had read Anne Tyler said they’d enjoyed her books. We don’t wanna be nasty. But A Spool of Blue Thread did not bob our bateaux, which instead were smashed on rocks of can’t-be-arsed. I had rather struggled to get through a few recent books (Americanah, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) but the effort had been worth it. Here, I found Anne Tyler easy to read, easy to finish, but there was no satisfaction. It was like the anticipation of Christmas with the reality of an empty stocking, the smell of a banquet with the reality of a stale cracker.
In a week where the news reported 27% of Londoners are classified as working-poor, it’s easy to diss our city. But we have incredible art here right now – Goya, Giacometti, Frank Auerbach, Bridget Riley, Ai Weiwei, World Pop, Hoyland at Newport Street. We should be really grateful for all of this. Maybe Dave is almost right ... Ai Weiwei might not be lucky he’s oppressed, but in some twisted way we are very lucky he is.