To describe something is to change how it is valued. To depict it or to pray for it is do much the same thing.
It is a simple insight I found mentioned again earlier this month. It is one I find I was thinking about seven years ago, remembering then Irina Ratushinskaya finding a fellow prisoner’s urgent pleasure in discovering that she was a writer and thus someone able to name their situation.
We found ourselves in Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy on Saturday and I hadn’t expected it to make anything like the impact it did. He shares some of her experiences beginning with a childhood as the son of a poet internally exiled during the Cultural Revolution.
He had recovered the metal from collapsed reinforced concrete following an earthquake in which the disproportionately high number of children killed appeared to reflect the corruption which had resulted in sub-standard school building. These strands of metal were stacked in a huge hall like an undulating landscape with fractured cliffs along it and with the otherwise concealed and forgotten names of the children listed in their hundreds on the walls around.
He had emerged from a period of detention about which he was forbidden to speak or paint but during which he had memorised every detail of his cell. These memories were reconstructed at half size in closed boxes set out across another room into which one could peer either through the only high level windows or through openings above the shower and toilet sharing the intrusion of the guards who continued to watch him there.
There was much else, including two copies of an encyclopaedia of artists, the English edition open at a double page spread which includes a page about him, the Chinese edition open at the same pair of pages identical on one side but with a page about a western artist replacing the page about him on the other side.
I’m sorry not to have a camera with me to add illustrations to these few words about the exhibition. There is something about the sheer scale of these pieces and those constructed as a forest of marble grass or stacked wood rescued from derelict temples.
Instead, the hundred year old postbox (from the reign of Edward VII 1901-10) on Grimsby’s Pelham Road just happens to be the most recent photograph I’ve taken.