AI WEIWEI New York Photographs 1983 1993by John Yau
ASIA SOCIETY | JUNE 29 – AUGUST 14, 2011
Ai Weiwei is the son of the important Chinese Modernist poet, Ai Qing, who believed in free expression and social criticism. In 1958, Ai Qing was sent to a labor camp because he openly criticized the Communist government for its treatment of the proto-feminist writer, Ding Ling. For the 16 years his father was in prison, Ai Weiwei experienced firsthand the severity of such a situation, where language is under constant pressure from the authorities, who possess the power to distort and twist whatever is said or written, and harshly punish writers and freethinkers such as Ai Qing and Ding Ling. In 1975, the “rehabilitated” Ai Qing returned with his family to Beijing, and Ai Weiwei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy in 1978. His classmates included Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. He also helped found the “Stars,” a group of radical, forward-thinking Chinese artists interested in performance and photography. In 1981, when Ai Weiwei was about to leave for America, he announced to his mother: “I am going home. And a few years later you will hear of me as another Picasso.”
Ambitious from the beginning, Ai Weiwei studied English at the University of Pennsylvania and Berkeley before attending Parsons on a scholarship, which he soon lost after he failed an art history exam given in English. Over the next decade Ai Weiwei took more than 10,000 photographs, many of which weren’t developed until recently. Together they form a diary/document of the education and self-discovery of Ai Weiwei. As much as the photographs tell you, I suspect the curators have downplayed or left out important pieces of information. There is only one photograph of Ai Weiwei’s time in Atlantic City, for example, where he became well known in gambling circles for his skill at blackjack. His resourcefulness at surviving in America is a remarkable account, and his ability to win at blackjack—a game he learned while in America—is part of the story. Each photograph identifies its subject by name, place, and year. But not everyone is named. The activist poet and investigative researcher Ed Sanders, for example, is an unidentified figure engaged in an animated conversation with Allen Ginsberg.
By 1986, Ai Weiwei knew Ginsberg well enough to photograph the poet visiting him in his East Third Street apartment. There are at least eight other photographs of Ginsberg, the most images of any non-Chinese individual, with the latest from 1992. Ai also caught the poet Gu Cheng (1956 – 1993) wearing his signature stovepipe hat cut from a pant leg, arriving at Kennedy International Airport in 1988 (the year before Tiananmen Square). Like Ai Weiwei, Gu Cheng was the son of a prominent party member and poet, Gu Gong, who remained in favor until the Cultural Revolution. In 1967, Gu Gong and his family were sent into the countryside by the Red Guard to breed pigs and be “re-educated,” effectively ending Gu Cheng’s formal education. In 1993, Gu Cheng fatally wounded his wife, Xi Yie, before hanging himself.
Another photograph is labeled, “Bei Dao 1988.” The poet is sitting in Ai Weiwei’s Third Street apartment, which seemed to function as a crash pad and meeting place for many Chinese émigré artists, musicians, filmmakers, and poets. Both Gu Cheng and Bei Dao were leading “Misty Poets” who were well received in America and Europe in the late 1980s, but, as with much in the West, attention soon moved onto other things, leaving some of the poets feeling stranded and even more isolated.
The exhibition consists of 227 sequenced photographs and filmstrips, which Ai Weiwei has selected, identified, digitized, and reproduced as silver gelatin prints. One filmstrip jumps from a view of the Chinese Consulate’s carpet to a Lower East Side street corner at night. The earliest photographs are from 1983, while he was living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. In 1985, he moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he lived in two different apartments until he returned to China in 1993 to be with his ailing father.
Looking at the work in chronological order, one recognizes a cluster of recurring interests forming over time. One trope is that of homogeneous groups defining themselves within or against the larger mainstream culture (St. Patrick’s Day Parade; the Hells Angels Club on East Third Street; the “Wigstock” concert; Chinese New Year’s celebration in Chinatown; Ai Weiwei and his Chinese émigré friends). Another trope is of the power relationship between the state and opposition groups (Tompkins Square Park riot; Al Sharpton; Tawana Brawley protest). His interest in poets, particularly Ginsberg, is another focal point. Ginsberg defined the poet as the individual who stands up and speaks on behalf of the body politic (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…”). He also thoroughly documented his life in photographs. Ginsberg is the one subject in Ai’s photographs who is identified with both countercultural groups (“the Beats” in the 1950s) and antiwar protest (the “Chicago 8” in the 1960s). The uproar over the publication of Howl and the government’s early attempts to censor it for obscenity could not have been lost on Ai Weiwei. One particularly touching photograph is of Ginsberg and the artist sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on restaurant barstools, with their hands folded in identical lotus positions.
There are multiple narratives entwined within these photographs, and many of the individual views are just the tip of an iceberg. Critics have understandably tended to focus on Ai Weiwei’s relationship to Marcel Duchamp, which is obviously there, and singled out his photographs of artworks by Duchamp, Warhol, and Jasper Johns, which often picture himself standing nearby. While it plays to the current market climate to stress Ai’s conceptual bona fides, the more elusive aspects of his work remain just that, elusive. The old dictum that art comes only from art was rendered obsolete with the birth of abstraction, when sound poetry and poets such as Hugo Ball and Velimir Khlebnikov influenced artists such as Hans Arp and Kazimir Malevich. Ai Weiwei’s long and involved relationship to poetry and language is equally apparent, but is seldom commented on, which is why it is important to draw attention to it. In ways both overt and—in the case of the academy—subtle, censorship of Ai Weiwei continues to manifest itself.