Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983–1993, an exhibition running at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC until Nov.30, provides a unique look at the fledgling creative origins of the celebrated and controversial Chinese conceptual artist. Weiwei is equally known for his diverse artistic output and for his commitment to greater freedom of expression and human rights in China and worldwide.
The exhibit features 227 chronologically laid out black and white photographs that Ai Weiwei took during the decade he lived in New York, and range in subject matter from depictions of the artist’s friends and documentation of life in the city, to the portrayals of social change that swept New York in that era.
The artist personally selected all the photographs featured in this exhibit (which also showed in Beijing, New York, Berlin and San Francisco) out of thousands of negatives he created during that formative decade in New York, none of which were even printed until recently.
“The exhibit is more experiential, and a representation of a time. It’s a story of an individual who lived through the cultural revolution, had never been outside of China [at that time], and this collection of images are really [his impressions of] New York,” says Keith Wallace, associate director/curator at the Belkin.
Though he did not set out to be a documentarian at that time, nor was he an active participant in the 1980’s neo-expressionist New York art scene, Ai Weiwei’s photographs not only capture some of the distinctive tributes of that era, but also demonstrate the artist’s burgeoning interest in social justice.
“We think of Ai Weiwei now as this political activist, so what is interesting is to see this early formation of his activism. He was observing [life in New York], and [it made him] realize that in the West there is the opportunity to protest, which there isn’t in China,” says Wallace.
Photographs such as Bleeding Protestor. Tompkins Square Park Riots, 1988 and Police at a Park Protest, 1988, depict police power and brutality, and Ai’s photographs of this riot were even used as evidence in the lawsuit that was filed against the police for undue use of force in that incident.
Some of the photographs feature arrests made by undercover police, and therefore reveal Ai’s early interest in surveillance, which has gone on to feature as a prominent theme in his work. Ai’s work on this and other social critique topics is generally interpreted as targeting China’s political and social regime, yet he is currently only able to show his more politically overt work outside of the country.
For example, Remembering, a work constructed out of 9,000 children’s backpacks which spell out the sentence “she lived happily for seven years in this world” – a quotation taken from a mother whose child was one of the many victims of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China – was shown in Munich in 2009, yet it wouldn’t have been able to be featured in Ai’s homeland.
The artist himself has been arrested and beaten by Chinese police over his support to Chinese activists who were exposing the corruption that tolerated lax construction codes which allowed buildings to easily collapse during the earthquake.
Yet the reason why Ai’s work has garnered such international acclaim is because it addresses oppression and inequality as something that isn’t just unique to China.
“I believe [the reason Ai Weiwei’s] work has gained such acclaim is because the mirror he holds up is not only [directed at] China’s failings, but reflects injustices found in varying degrees in all societies,” says Barbara Zeigler, associate professor at the UBC Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory (AHVA).
The work Ai exhibits in China is often less directly political, and focuses more on deconstructing traditions in the face of changes brought on by globalization.
“He is an artist who is able to confront the social, cultural and political environment of change in China,” says Xiong Gu, professor at AHVA.
Gu points at Ai’s internet savvy and his popular blog and twitter account as strong contributors to his international acclaim. Gu also believes Ai’s work has grown in popularity within the Vancouver Chinese community, and he is certain that the Belkin exhibit will draw significant attendance from that demographic.
Wallace also points out that Vancouver has an established history of street photography with artists such as Fred Herzog, so that Ai Weiwei’s personal and eclectic photographs of New York will therefore resonate easily with local audiences.
For more information on Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983–1993, visit www.belkin.ubc.ca