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Ai Weiwei Reminds Us That Freedom Is a Struggle in Major Museum Show

Installation view of Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles, 2011, in “Bare Life,” 2019. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei, Forever Bicycles, 2011, in “Bare Life,” 2019. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Throughout his storied career, has advocated freedom above all else. The Chinese artist’s anti-authoritarian work ranges from wallpaper patterned with hands giving the middle finger to a recent New York Times op-ed supporting Hong Kong’s resistance to Chinese control. Ai has no faith in a legal system that throws Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning in jail, nor in a culture that uses simplistic moral judgments to denounce artworks by artists accused of misdeeds. Speaking of Woody Allen, he told me recently: “If he violated law, put him in jail or give him a fine. But you can’t use that kind of thing to denounce his contribution to the world.” Otherwise, he cautioned, “we become Nazis.”
Ai and I were sitting in the newly renovated Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. The school recently spent $360 million transforming the East End of its campus; the Kemper was one beneficiary, gaining a gallery expansion and a shiny, new stainless-steel façade. The institution inaugurated its new building with a major Ai Weiwei exhibition, titled “Bare Life,” curated by the Kemper’s director and chief curator, Sabine Eckmann. The show features around 40 of Ai’s works from the past three decades. During a press preview on Friday, Eckmann lauded the artist as one of the few contemporary figures “advancing both conceptual art and realism.”
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 2015. Courtesyof Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 2015. Courtesyof Ai Weiwei Studio.

The 62-year-old artist’s own personal brush-ups with freedom and confinement are legendary. As a child, he lived in exile with his family after the Chinese Communist Party denounced his father, poet Ai Qing. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Ai Weiwei lived in New York, where he experienced newfound freedoms and developed an interest in Western art. He was particularly drawn to the readymade objects of and the cheeky of . Ai returned to China in 1993 to tend to his ill father, but the country was hardly more welcoming to his work than it had been to Ai Qing’s poetry decades ago (ironically, the authorities have since relented and made the poet into a national hero).
In 2010, the Chinese government placed Ai Weiwei on house arrest for his dissident artworks and ideas. The following year, he spent 81 days in prison, and his passport was revoked for four years.In 2018, the government destroyed the artist’s Beijing studio without notice. He now lives in Berlin, making art in a 150-year-old beer cellar.
Ai Weiwei, Grapes, 2011. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei studio.

Ai Weiwei, Grapes, 2011. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei studio.

Ai has previously noted that he’s tired of museum shows. Speaking with me, he described himself as a kind of street performer out of a Federico Fellini film, always trying to impress an audience—if people don’t like the work, they can just go shopping. It can be exhausting, he said. Nevertheless, museums offer him opportunities to thoughtfully curate his work for public viewing. “Every show, we make a great effort,” he said. “Our shows have such complexity, story, and background, relating to events or even just materials or craftsmanship. They’re all different.”
The Kemper exhibition features two sections, spanning two galleries. The first, “Bare Life,” focuses on Ai’s efforts to expose societal ills. Black-and-white wallpaper, titled Odyssey (2016), lines the walls with scenes of migration: Helicopters swarm above building ruins, tents rise near barbed-wire fences, and humans march in a seemingly endless narrative about displacement and relocation. The refugee crisis has long been a concern for Ai—in 2017,with the support of the Public Art Fund, he mounted public works across New York City that took the form of fences and gates; the same year, he debuted a documentary on the subject, called Human Flow; and he’s foregrounded issues of migration in several of his exhibitions, from Düsseldorf to Istanbul.
Ai Weiwei, Illumination, 2009. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei studio.

Ai Weiwei, Illumination, 2009. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei studio.

At the center of the gallery, a set of eight coffin-like wooden structures, collectively titled Rebar and Case (2014), commemorate the victims of the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province. Schools collapsed due to their shoddy, cheap, public constructions, killing the students inside. Yet according to Ai, the Chinese government has covered up these tragedies and refused to take responsibility for its role.
The exhibition’s second section, “Rupture,” revolves around Ai’s work that connects historical forms of craftsmanship with contemporary globalization. A monumental artwork at the center of the gallery, Through (2007–08), unites old wooden tables, beams, and pillars from dismantled Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) temples. The Communist Party destroyed many of the original structures in an attempt to erase China’s monarchic past. Out of the ruins, Ai created an immersive, open structure. Beams slant into one another and pass through tables, giving viewers the opportunity to walk through and examine the salvaged pieces from myriad angles.
Installation view of Ai Weiwei, Through, 2007–08, in “Bare Life,” 2019. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei, Through, 2007–08, in “Bare Life,” 2019. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

In between the galleries, the Kemper has mounted one major new artwork, Bombs (2019), which comprises wallpaper with 43 full-scale illustrations of bombs created around the world. Depictions of massive weapons such as the United States’s Daisy Cutter (1970) and Fat Man (1945), as well as Russia’s KAB-1500L (1979), hover threateningly over museumgoers. Ai’s inclusion of their names and dates of creation turn the weapons into sinister artworks.
Many of Ai’s artworks are conceptual, and the artist has proven extraordinarily prolific in a variety of media. Yet at a public Q&A session with Eckmann on Thursday evening, he suggested that he still faces many of his own challenges—though that’s not a bad thing. “Freedom is a struggle,” he said. “Art should be a struggle.”
Installation view of Ai Weiwei, Bombs, 2019, in “Bare Life,” 2019. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei, Bombs, 2019, in “Bare Life,” 2019. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

The Kemper exhibition demonstrates the range of Ai’s concerns, from warfare to historical preservation, migration to memory. His materials, too, are expansive: Legos, video, wallpaper, installation, prints, ceramics, and tear gas canisters are all on view. Within his studio, Ai finds infinite personal freedom. If he can’t single-handedly galvanize universal change, he’ll keep undermining political structures through his thoughtful, angry, moving, and singular practice. Describing what art means to him, he noted his work’s personal, intimate dimension. “It’s satisfaction,” he said. “It’s revenge. It’s all about me.”
No matter how fraught the political climate becomes, Ai told me he has faith in artists and agitators—“those people who initiate individual consciousness and their own moral standing, standing up to express their feelings. It’s a rare case for individuals to have their own voice.”
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.