Ai Weiwei and the art of surveillance

Lisson Gallery chooses the Chinese artist's less political work.

A huge amount has been written about Ai Weiwei since he was arrested last month at Beijing Airport for unspecified "economic crimes". So the first retrospective in the UK of his work, at London's Lisson Gallery, comes at a poignant time, with the ongoing detention of the Chinese artist and social critic.

I became aware of Ai's worsening predicament last year. Walking around his studio complex in the north-east of Beijing one overcast April morning, I noticed two surveillance cameras attached to utility poles outside the front gate. Plain-clothes police officers also patrolled the street. Later I learned that the cameras had been installed in 2009 by the Chinese authorities, to observe the traffic going in and out, despite Ai's compulsion to broadcast the minutiae of his life via Twitter and his blog.

On display at the Lisson is a replica of these cameras, but carved out of a single block of white marble. The work, entitled "Surveillance Camera", is a commentary on the Big Brother state in which Ai lives. It is pointed out of the gallery's vast window, seemingly recording the Lisson's own CCTV camera outside, or perhaps the schoolchildren in the playground across the road. In the light of his detention, the sculpture acquires an added depth. Ai had complained about the ubiquitous police surveillance in China just two days before he vanished.

The Lisson is also showing "Coloured Vases" (2009). The installation is made up of 6,000-year-old Han Dynasty vessels, which he has dipped in bright, sometimes garishly coloured industrial paint. These red, yellow and purple vases are one of the show's highlights.

Ai has creatively vandalised ancient vases before. One of his most famous and controversial pieces is the performance "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1995), which is remembered in a photo-triptych. The black-and-white pictures show Ai dropping an ancient ceramic vase, which shatters on the floor at his feet. And in another work he made in 1994, Ai stamps the Coca-Cola logo across an ancient vase's exterior.

Unfortunately, these are not on display. Indeed, one would never guess that Ai is widely touted as the world's most daring contemporary artist. The Lisson has instead chosen to exhibit less confrontational, more contemplative works, ranging from video installations to sculptures.

We see a bent coffin and benches made from salvaged wood from temples set for demolition, and four wooden chests with round holes in them so it seems like you are watching different phases of the moon.

These sculptures are beautiful and skillfully crafted, but they pale in comparison to Ai's most important works. Consider the photograph from 2009, where Ai stands in Tiananmen Square, the site of the Chinese government's crushing opf the student-led democracy movement in 1989, with his shirt open, displaying an upper-case "FUCK" printed on his chest. Or consider his memorial to the 5,000 pupils crushed to death in shoddily built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which spelled out in children's rucksacks the words of a grieving mother: "She lived happily on this earth for seven years".

Although this retrospective is a good introduction to Ai's work - and the best we are likely to see in London in the near future -- it feels like an opportunity has been missed. Ai is not the only absentee from his London show. His most politically daring works are missing, too.

For a better sense of Ai's activism and meditations on architecture, Chinese culture and art, one can read the collection of blog posts anthologised in Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. We read about how he helped design the Birds Nest stadium but then called for an Olympic boycott; and we learn of his concern for workers' rights, when he writes that 40,000 workers in southern China lose fingers in machinery accidents each year because of poor safety standards.

Ai was born in 1957. Like many of his generation who were raised during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, he received little formal education. Until he started blogging in 2006, Ai had very little writing experience and barely knew how to type, making this book even more astonishing.

"Ai Weiwei" runs at the Lisson Gallery, London NW1 until 16 July

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit