Ai Weiwei’s first retrospective exhibition in the UK at the Royal Academy of Arts was one of the most important art events of 2015. It sold out with such ferocity that the RA did something unprecedented. They extended opening hours for the final 4 weekends and announced round-the-clock entry for the three days before closing. The artist designed the RA exhibition remotely, since he had his passport confiscated by the authorities and couldn’t leave China.

He’s long been a favourite of Western art establishments — everyone wants a piece of Ai. Seeing the queue of people with tickets bought months in advance, I couldn’t help but wonder: could his overwhelming popularity on these shores be partly explained by magnetism of dissent?

Without belittling his artistic credentials in the slightest, the forbidden fruit is sweet — whether a silenced piece of music or a banned book. We find dissent alluring, and in the absence of certainty about our own, untested courage, we put proven bravery on a pedestal.

Ai Weiwei Tree in the courtyard of Cambridge University’s Downing College, 2016. Photo: Naneh V H

Ai Weiwei is a vocal critic of human rights violations in China who has stood up to the Communist government at the expense of his freedom and to the detriment of his well-being.

The hefty price he has paid so far for his outspokenness includes being badly beaten up on one occasion and imprisoned on another.

His artistic revenge? After coming out of prison, he created an installation of his prison cell, complete with wardens’ and his own figurines. It is an eerie piece.

China’s most daring artist is still under house arrest, but this dissident is internationally renowned for the largess of his conceptual art.

In his 2015 book ‘’Think Like an Artist’’, Will Gompertz brings up Weiwei as an example of artists’ brevity. He says Weiwei is taking on a mighty empire with his art.

An extreme form of courage reigns supreme here — in non-democracies, creative undertaking is likely to result in threat from powers that be.

And what of us, the audience? Why are we so fascinated by these tales of stamina and integrity? The idea that heartache can be turned into art is ancient. Equally fascinating are those who went against the grain, who were controversial in the face of the day’s conventions and were persecuted for it.

Dissent, not suffering per se, is in spotlight here. Dissent gets our vote in myriad fields of human endeavour: arts, sciences, politics, business, where arrogant or idealistic fellow humans did something worthwhile in the face of oppression. ‘’Could I be that brave?’’ we think.

Take another dissident, Andrei Sakharov, the deceased Russian nuclear physicist. He became a non-proliferation advocate in the 1950s, and a vocal critic of the Soviet troops’ invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which resulted in his imprisonment. Throughout 70s and 80s, he was a civil rights campaigner, and as such, had a travel ban imposed by the Communist Party on him and his wife. (He went on hunger strike to protest this, but was hospitalised and force-fed. Then, in 1975, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). ‘’What would I do?’’, we wonder.

Sakharov with his wife, Elena Bonner. Photo:

At a ripe old age, he saw his ideas victorious: Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, and Gorbachev announced a policy of democratization. This brought human rights and freedom of speech come to the fore of public debate.

Sakharov was elected to the new Parliament in 1989 (fated to be USSR’s last one before dissolution). I remember watching his passionate and intelligent speeches from the tribune on TV.

The frail seventy-something with a speech impediment, who continued to advance his ideals, left an awe-inspiring impression on my teen self. The human spirit finds the brave heart irresistible. He was still standing, defending what he believed in, and having proven his convictions in much darker times.

Back to at the ‘Tree’ installation in the RA courtyard — it consisted of eight seven-meter-tall trees, assembled from bits of dead trees. I studied the dry and bare branches screwed on to each other to make up magnificent whole trees. That desperation and determination to force back into life what were nature’s cast-offs felt unnerving. Who knows if we could have continued, were we in his shoes.

This same fascination with life and death is echoed in his other work back in the exhibition halls. For example, a pile of 90 tonnes of hand-straightened metal rods from schools destroyed in the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province.

This work was a form of protest against poor building practices that caused a disproportionately high number of victims. It seems that in countries where freedom of speech is a rare commodity, art for art’s sake is a waste of an opportunity to voice an opinion.

Weiwei is, to me, a dissident first and an artist second. Just as Sakharov was a dissident first and a scientist second.

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