The artist appears to have a simple and urgent proposition: to render the past absurd is to neutralise the rhetoric of the political right.
Without a golden age to hark about, no one can promise to make America, the UK, or India ‘great again’. And we can instead progress to a state of internationalism, equal rights, economic parity and perpetual peace.
Rahal lives in Mumbai, but he points out that the whole planet is “kind of a scary place to be working, globally”. He is, however, welcome in the North West, where for the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, his sculpture and film is being shown across three sites.
We met at Cains Brewery, a cavernous space for art enjoying a good year. It is however scruffy, and Rahal’s work looks in keeping with the general state of repair. It is the first thing a visitor sees: nuggets of clay arranged on trestle-like tables; bits of scaffold, locally sourced, covered in clay; and black-box monitors which appear to emerge from the mess on which figurines breathe or practice with lightsabers.
“I’m a huge nerd and I obviously have all these Star Wars references”, the artist cheerfully informs me. But like many contemporary sculptors, he aims both high and low, looking to Jorge Luis Borges for ”vast metaphysical narratives”, and for that writer’s concern with “creating this itinerary of our culture”.
In short, this itinerary is dystopian. The artefacts presented appear fresh from some archaeological dig. But what kind of half-formed world do they conjure up? A: it is a world run by idiots in which technology has failed us and we have forgotten basic craft skills. And that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds.
“I like the fact that these characters, or these objects of clay could somehow become like harbingers of something, you know?” Rahul tells me as we contemplate his pottery-based triage stations which all appear to somehow breathe in the light of the moving image work.
He also says: “I’m more interested in putting them together to form meaning… from these absurd things, which are beyond reason in a certain way. In that meaning-making ritual that people perform, how do we create allegiances? How do we create bonds across space-time?”
An interest in travel and time travel chimes in well with the 2016 Biennial, which is a nebulous animal in which Monuments from the Future is one of six official themes. You may find, as I did, that as you come across Rahal’s work more than once, you build a picture of what might be becoming.
It is a picture of a primitive time around the corner. Rahal expresses concern about right wing governments that have followed the Arab Spring, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the hate-filled effect of Brexit here in the UK.
If politics is performative, the artist has another highly political aspect to his practice. Rahul stages improvised, ritualistic performances which offer only “fleeting, fragmented glimpses” of a narrative, and which change gear according to pop cultural requests from his viewers.
“Even I don’t have a bead on [these],” he tells me. “Essentially, what’s interesting for me is that I’m also a viewer as well.” One supposes that in these powerless times, we are all to a degree little more than viewers, even as we march, occupy, tweet or blog.
But perhaps in the light of our political horizons, we’ll do well to maintain any civilisation at all.
Despite everything, Rahal is making the most of circumstances: “Earthenware has so much meaning to our origins so I’m drawn to that, but saying that it’s also so much fun to just dive into clay and get mud all over me.”
As well he might, since in Summer 2016 we are all up to the neck in it.
There are two epicentres under consideration in this monumental installation at the Royal Academy right now. One was in Wenchuan County in Sechuan; the other is the government in Beijing.
The first meant a quake that destroyed 20 schools. The second has monitored the ongoing work of China’s best known artist and kept him at arm’s length with bureaucracy and doublespeak.
Ai contends that given their location on a seismic faultline, the schools should have been better built. This piece is a memorial, which lays square blame with corrupt officials and construction firms.
There is even something unpatriotic about substandard architecture. This, after all, is a nation most famed for a wall stretching more than 20,000km. It inspires a memorable short story by Kafka.
For the Great Wall, says the Czech writer (although how would he know?): “An unremitting sense of personal responsibility in the builders were indispensable prerequisites for the work”.
But you can see, from 200 tonnes of straightened rebar, the materials in Sechuan were not equal to the task. And as you can see from the accompanying film, the steel bars failed as a structure.
Now another wall was put up to protect the guilty. Ai’s team struggled to get information on the missing and the dead. “What if you’re an American spy?” asks a drudge on the end of the phone.
Until the major earthquake, Ai appears to have been something of a favoured son and a successful architect in his own right. As you know, he collaborated on the main stadium for the Beijing Olympics.
But it’s commonly thought that it is his unambiguous art of protest, and not his tax affairs, which led to his detention without trial for 80 days in 2011. The authorities have said little.
Kafka again, in character as a native of the old empire, “We Chinese possess certain folk and political institutions that are unique in their clarity, others again unique in their obscurity.”
Clarity: Ai has crossed the line. Obscurity: we cannot tell you what line or where. Both qualities pursued the artist even to the point of his visa complications in getting to London for his show.
It is of course counterproductive. The repression gives additional power to the work. As if the walls filled with a list of 5,000 victims’ names, a list of serene despair, were not power enough.
Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy can be seen until 13 December 2015. You can find my review for Culture24 here. The Kafka story mentioned is of course The Great Wall of China, to be found in the Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka, Vintage, 1999.