BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Reviews | 02 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

Ai Weiwei

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Beijing, China

BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Reviews | 02 JUN 09

Ai Weiwei, Wang Keping and Ai Weiwei, 1987, black and white photograph, 85x85 cm

It seems somewhat beside the point whether all of Ai Weiwei’s public activities can be considered part of his art-making or not, since it’s almost impossible to draw a line between his role as a visual artist and that as a public figure who openly and fearlessly advocates the return to, and respect for, human dignity and freedom. What he does is unthinkable yet necessary in China. For example, he has been working with a team of volunteers to investigate and disclose on his blog the individual names of the students that were killed in the deadly earthquake in the south-western province of Sichuan in May 2008. Many schools collapsed and many young lives were lost, but it wasn’t long before casualties became just statistics, and the efforts to help survivors of the great disaster became the subject of a heart-warming propaganda drive for the state. Meanwhile, the identity of the immoral operation that was responsible for the inadequate construction of the school buildings remains safely in the dark. When most people accepted without question whatever facts were released by the government concerning the death toll and damages, a small group of people, Ai included, was determined to acknowledge the existence of these human beings by documenting and publishing their names. This near-impossible mission has encountered numerous obstructions by the authorities, which in turn have been fully reported on the blog, thus effectively recording the flaws of the social system and the inability of the Chinese people to think critically.

This is just one of Ai’s many crusades for social justice; another example is his personal involvement in a case of police injustice, in response to which he hired a lawyer to represent the victim. The case was eventually lost. He turned to his blog, which Hans Ulrich Obrist has described as a ‘social sculpture’, to write about the developments in the case, publishing images of a candle he lit for the young man he had been unable to save every day after his execution.

At the same time, Ai continues to command considerable attention on the international art circuit following his monumental presentation, Fairytale, at Documenta 12 in 2007. This year alone, he has four solo exhibitions in major museums around the world. Against this background, the exhibition ‘Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983 to 1993’ was a succinct, frank and compelling revelation of the early formation of Ai’s mindset, shedding light on his approach to his art, and the society in which he lives today. Exhibited for the first time, the black and white images in white frames were selected from over 350 rolls of film from Ai’s decade-long stay in New York.

Between the ages of 26 and 36, having failed to finish his art-school education, Ai lived in a crammed basement apartment on the Lower East Side, where he provided shelter for many artists, writers, film directors and musicians from China who were living in a bohemian way in New York like himself, or who were simply passing through the city. In the images, the presence of this circle of friends, many of whom are as prominent as Ai is himself today, is an indication that he was never far from the cultural pulse of China even back then. However, more importantly, his frequent contact with Allen Ginsberg, who happened to be his neighbour, his constant encounters with the various political movements and protests relating to AIDS, homosexuality, civil rights and police brutality, as well as his experience of alternative music scenes, deeply shaped his principles and philosophy. His understanding and appreciation of freedom and individual pride is clearly rooted in those experiences.

The photographs also show Ai as a young artist who was still finding his footing in the art scene (there is only one image documenting a solo exhibition by him). They reveal him very much as having been close to a culture and a scene that he was only party to as a witness (in one of the pictures, he is seen as one of a crowd of visitors to the Whitney Museum of American Art) and that he was perhaps trying to emulate (in another image, he is imitating a pose adopted by Andy Warhol in one of the artist’s self-portraits). In retrospect, the early steps documented in these photographs seem crucial to understanding what Ai is today: a central voice in the reconstruction of intellectual and moral standards in China.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.