Having had dinner last night with some friends and seeking, but not finding, a single article to send them this morning that succinctly summed up the artist, his career and international stature, his current L.A. exhibitions, and why I am gaga about both the man and his art, I am writing what follows.
Ai Weiwei is the son of a famed Chinese poet who was exiled to China’s northern provinces during the Cultural Revolution, where he was humiliated and subjected to forced labor. At age 19, after Mao’s death, Ai and his family returned to Beijing, where he attended the Beijing Film Academy. He then spent over a decade in the United States, where he studied a bit, took photographs, absorbed the current American art scene, and experienced democracy and freedom. It was only after he returned to Beijing in 1993 (his father had taken ill) that Ai emerged as an artist, defining himself as a political dissident and artistic rebel. As he has declared, “I was born a rebel,” which owes both to his father’s experience and to his own deep-rooted humanism.
Among his early works is the Study in Perspective Series, begun in 1995, the title giving a nod to artmaking practices (perspectival studies), while the photographic images involve his literally giving the finger to buildings and monuments of the world that are symbols of power–from Tiananmen Square Gate to The Reichstag, White House, and Eiffel Tower. Another important early piece, Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn (1995) features a series of photographs of Ai dropping an antique vase, a shock-inducing act in which he gives representation to China’s disregard for its cultural heritage. This remains a central theme of his art, one that reaches back to the abuse of his poet father and to the destruction of Ai’s Biejing studio two months ago, a demolition slated to give way to new construction. Yet another early act of rebellion was Ai’s publication, issued in tandem with a few colleagues, of the Black, White, and Grey Cover Books (1994, 1995, and 1997 respectively), volumes distributed through underground networks that provided information about contemporary Western art to that point otherwise unavailable to Chinese artists.
Ai’s international reputation was growing and it is probably what saved him when he rose up in protest and spoke out for the voiceless after the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, which destroyed schools that had been shoddily built. Ai collected the names of the thousands of children that died, exploiting his blog, social media, and films to publicize the injustice. He also designed any number of artworks and installations that incorporated the children’s names, school backpacks, and such building materials as rebar to point to the loss of precious life and the negligent construction. As a consequence, Ai’s home and studio were put under constant surveillance by the authorities. At one point, Ai was beaten by the police, suffering a brain hemorrhage. Persisting with his cause, he was then imprisoned under oppressive conditions for 81 days in 2011. After his release, he was unable to leave the country for several years, his passport having been confiscated.
When his passport was returned in 2015, Ai moved to Berlin and shortly thereafter took the global refugee crisis as the focus of his humanitarian pursuits, using every means at his disposal to call attention to the human suffering: his world-wide social media following, his art, installations, and exhibitions, and his feature-length, devastating and heartrending film, Human Flow, released last year (available on Amazon Prime).
The refugee crisis is also addressed in Ai Weiwei: CAO/Humanity, one of the trio of exhibitions currently on view in Los Angeles, this one at UTA Artists Space, which opened a new Beverly Hills gallery in a former warehouse a few months ago that was reconfigured by none other than Ai Weiwei. “Cao” means “grass” in Chinese, but, when used in a certain context, it also means” fuck,” which helps explain both the marble sculptures of grass and the wallpaper and sculptures included in the show that feature extended arms with their middle fingers raised (the gesture seen in the Study in Perspective photographs). Included in this exhibition too is wallpaper depicting refugees as well as one-of-a-kind porcelain plates painted in a “typical” Chinese style depicting the same. On a monitor installed in one of the gallery spaces, a series of people read from Ai’s recently published book Humanity, which gathers statements he made after his extended visits to refugee camps.
The monitor hangs on a wall covered with yet another wallpaper designed by Ai, entitled The Animal That Looks Like a Llama But is Really an Alpaca (2015), which also makes an appearance in Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery. What from a distance appears to be a decorative gold damask pattern actually consists of an array of images of surveillance cameras, handcuffs, rebar, and other items of autobiographical significance.
While Ai’s exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch’s New York gallery in 2016, entitled Laundromat, presented thousands of articles of clothing and other belongings, cleaned and sanitized, left behind in a refugee camp that was hastily evacuated, together with photographic and news and social media documentation, the exhibition that opened Jeffrey Deitch’s new space in Hollywood offered a summation of some of Ai’s continuing thematic and aesthetic concerns. Almost 6,000 three-legged wooden stools, some of them dating to the 14th Century, gathered by the artist from villages across northern China, are assembled to form an enormous square that occupies almost the whole of the space. Made by hand by craftsmen, these stools were discarded in favor of cheap plastic models after the Cultural Revolution, thereby serving as models of China’s cultural heritage, which Ai seeks to preserve.
On the walls at Deitch is a new series of works depicting the heads of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. These are high color, planar works that look back to Ai’s freestanding bronze Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads shown at LACMA in 2011. At Deitch, each of the animal heads overlaps one of the buildings and monuments seen in the Study of Perspective series. It may be noted that the illustrational style used in depicting the “mythic” animal heads recalls that seen in Andy Warhol’s Myths Portfolio (1981), which featured images of Superman, the Wicked Witch of the West, Mickey Mouse, Uncle Sam, and other American cultural icons. Rather than working in screenprint, like Warhol, however, Ai’s works are comprised of thousands upon thousands of LEGO bricks, the same material Ai used for his series of portrait heads of political dissidents (the Americans Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning among them) exhibited at Alcatraz in 2015 and now owned, interestingly enough, as Ai points out, by the Hirshhorn on the national mall in DC. Also at Deitch is a series of cubes set in a row made of different materials–compressed tea, crystal, painted porcelain, and a wooden puzzle box–nods to Minimalist art as well as to Chinese tradition.
Large square fields made up of accumulations of like materials are also seen at the Marciano Art Foundation, on mid-Wilshire, the third L.A. venue presenting Ai’s work. One of the enormous fields is comprised of 49 tons of sunflower seeds–or what look like sunflower seeds, but are actually individually hand-painted pieces of porcelain in the shapes of sunflower seeds. Originally shown at the Tate Modern in London in 2010, where they were intended to be walked through and rested upon (although the dust released proved to be a health hazard), the common snack food serves as a reference to the Chinese people, each of whom is a unique individual, but also to the one-time conception of the Chinese populace as sunflowers facing Mao as the sun. The second field of accumulated parts consists of a mind-bogglingly large collection of spouts broken off from teapots, some of them dating back centuries (upon first encounter, it appears to be a field of bones). While again involving the preservation of something old and indelibly Chinese, Spouts also connotes “spouting off”–the principle of freedom of expression that Ai holds dear.
The final installation at the Marciano is Life Cycle (2018), a magnificent, large-scale, infinitely complex assembly of parts that is encyclopedic in its range of references to aspects of Ai’s art and life experience. The centerpiece is a boat or raft packed with adults and children accompanied by animals of the Chinese zodiac. The whole of the installation–the boat, the figures, zodiac animals, and more–is made of bent pieces of bamboo, using techniques used in Chinese kite-making. Suspended above the boat are elaborate, fanciful hybrid creatures crafted from bamboo and silk derived from a 4th-century BC Chinese text, the Shanhailing. On the surrounding walls, essentially drawn with bamboo, are vignettes that mix biographical, mythological, and art historical details, which are far too dense and varied to describe here. However, even those new to Ai Weiwei’s art will note certain familiar details–a series of hands with their middle fingers raised, surveillance cameras, and much more.
Now 61, Ai Weiwei has just purchased property in Upstate New York, so that a new chapter of his life will begin. It has been a life spent speaking out against abuses of power and for human rights, freedom of expression, and human dignity, often at great personal expense with regard to his personal privacy (surveillance), health, and freedom. He has chosen an interesting moment to invest in the U.S.A., a time when democracy and freedom appear threatened, perhaps as never before. Ai, make yourself at home. You are much needed!