Ahead of its Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy elects Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei as an honorary academician, telling Channel 4 News it is a sign of support for the world-renowned artist.
The Royal Academy of Arts also elected Danish artist Per Kirkeby as an honorary member, saying both artists were globally acclaimed for their work.
But the election of Ai Weiwei carries with it major political significance, as the artist remains in detention in China despite an international outcry.
An outspoken critic of the Chinese Government, Ai Weiwei has only been allowed one visit since he was arrested at a Beijing airport on 3 April. China says he is being investigated for unspecified economic crimes.
In May, artists including Anish Kapoor said Ai Weiwei’s incarceration was “unacceptable” and called for galleries and museums around the world to close for one day in protest. Sculptor Antony Gormley told Channel 4 News Ai Weiwei must be allowed access to his lawyer and family, saying his arrest had “shocked the world”.
Royal Academician Christopher Le Brun told Channel 4 News the election of Ai Weiwei as an honorary member was a sign of support for the artist.
“The RA regularly elects the most distinguished world artists as honorary members,” he said.
“Ai Weiwei has very much been elected on his merit as an artist. But we are very pleased to support him at this time. Anish Kapoor and others have called for a response from the art world to his detention – in a sense, this is the RA’s response.”
The elections come ahead of the opening of the RA’s annual Summer Exhibition in London, in which the work of amateur artists is exhibited alongside the stars of British art.
The exhibition, in its 243rd year, opens to the public next week. The works on show have been selected out of 12,000 entries from 27 countries and include Jeff Koons’s sculpture Coloring Book, exhibited in the courtyard (pictured).
Mr Le Brun, the co-ordinator of this year’s show, told Channel 4 News the aim was to shake up public perceptions of the RA and the summer exhibition.
“People are over-familiar with what they think the Summer Exhibition is,” he said.
“We wanted to make it new. We announce the difference straight away – with photography at the beginning of the exhibition. There’s a debate about the status of photography as art. It is art – get over it. And these are major artists and beautiful works.”
Some of the galleries in the exhibition include works by academicians mixed in with work by amateurs, but one room – curated by Michael Craig-Martin RA – is showing only academicians’ work. It includes pieces by Tracey Emin, Cornelia Parker and Alison Wilding.
Mr Le Brun said he hoped this would demonstrate what the RA stands for. “We want to remind people the RA is not what they thought it was,” he said.
“For example, 40 per cent of our members were elected in the last 10 years. There are lots of younger artists and famous figures.”
The exhibition, which also includes an architecture room and is sponsored by Insight Investment, opens to the public on 7 June.