Tim Cooke

His latest bust-up with LEGO is attracting global headlines but Ai Weiwei’s target in his current exhibition in London’s Royal Academy is very much the Chinese regime. It’s a regime he’ll continue to target, not doubt, but if you want to see this landmark show you’ll have to hurry. It ends on December 13. It shouldn’t be missed.

Ai Weiwei's Surveillance Camera 2010

Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Camera 2010

It’s an exhibition in which the precision of Ai Weiwei’s craft is immediately obvious, so too the message of much of his art which gives form and expression to the experience of living in a society characterised by authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

It’s hardly the the worst way to offer political challenge and unflinching social commentary. It has presence and power and makes an enduring impression. Both the art and the activism behind it convey a sense of scale, a strong aesthetic and substantial materiality.

A good example is the 96-tonne work Straight formed from remnants of buildings destroyed in an earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008 in which 5,000 students died. Each victim is named on a nearby wall.

Polished marble sculpture is employed to draw attention to the role of the surveillance camera. 3,000 porcelain crabs invite reflection on the theme of censorship.

Ai Weiwei's He Xie 2011

Ai Weiwei’s He Xie 2011

It is immediately evident that the artist has a deep understanding of both ancient and contemporary Chinese and Western culture and of art history. Not surprising as he has lived and worked in New York and Berlin, as well as Shanghai and Beijing.

The installation S.A.C.R.E.D attracts huge interest. It’s made up of six dioramas inside metal boxes with small viewing windows, illustrating Ai’s experience of Chinese prison.

Ai Weiwei's S.A.C.R.E.D 2012

Ai Weiwei’s S.A.C.R.E.D 2012

The public response has been notably strong, with the Royal Academy besieged with visitors. The critics seem to have been universally enthralled.

In the end you come out of this exhibition certain that you have encountered something weighty. It exudes experience, discipline and skill. It has insight and it has meaning.