Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum hosts first Midwest Ai Weiwei exhibition


Famed artist and activist Ai Weiwei opened his exhibition, “Bare Life,” at the Kemper Art Museum last week. 

Contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei established his first exhibition in the Midwest in an academic setting last week. Mildred Kemper Art Museum, at Washington University, hosted a media day for his exhibition, “Bare Life.” Director and Chief Curator Sabine Eckmann had been in contact with Ai to plan this exhibition for approximately three years.

“There’s no question that Ai Weiwei is one of the most important artists in today’s world,” said Eckmann.

Eckmann said her fascination to collaborate with Ai on the exhibition were his skills in conceptual art, reviving and recreating the “ready-made” and politically-aware realism.

“He is advancing both conceptual art and realism, and these are strains within modern contemporary art that is usually seen as opposites,” Eckmann said.

The exhibition displays two sections: “Rupture” and “Bare Life.”

Ai’s work in the Bare Life section provides insight to human rights violations on a global scale. Specifically, he references the increasing issue of displaced refugees. Additionally, in relation to China, this section provides insight following the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

“Letters from Government officials in Response to Ai Weiwei Studio’s Inquiries regarding the Sichuan Earthquake” (2008) displays 123 framed letters. An earthquake struck Sichuan province on May 12, 2008.

This resulted in approximately 70,000 deaths. Many, including Ai, attribute that official corruption caused the collapse of many school buildings.

The Chinese government never released the names of the students killed or public inquiry even though they said they would investigate the structural collapse of Sichuan Province schools.

As a result, Ai gathered volunteers to travel through the province as a citizen’s investigation. They talked to survivors and families of the victims.

A lambda print mounted on aluminum, “Illumination” (2009), documents the night the police detained Ai. In Aug. 2009, Ai traveled to Chengdu to testify for activist Tan Zuoren. The police barged into Ai’s hotel room where they beat him and arrested his colleagues.

For Ai’s piece, “Forever Bicycles” (2012), he assembled 720 stainless steel bicycles in the shape of an arch. His design allows viewers to walk under and around.The piece references Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made “Bicycle Wheel” (1913).

Duchamp created the term “ready-made,” which means mass-produced objects that lose their original context or functionality and instead become presented as art.

“I think China is my ready-made because I always have to build my personal interpretation with such large context,” Ai said.

“Rupture” explores China’s relationship to its past, specifically radical erasures of the Cultural Revolution and China’s transformation into globalization. In addition, the section displays Ai’s interactions with traditional Chinese artifacts.

Dismantled from Qing Dynasty temples, the piece, “Through” (2007-2008), displays wooden beams and pillars that intersect each other and hang over the viewers.

Another piece, “Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn” (2015), originally a photograph, hangs on the wall as a lego triptych. Tiny Lego bricks combine one by one to create a unified version of dropping the urn.

The Chinese government ordered Ai’s newly built

Ai Weiwei speaks to Director and Cuartor Sabine Eckmann before a press conference at Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on Friday, Sept. 27. Photo by Aly Camacho

Shanghai studio to be knocked down on Jan. 11, 2011. In response, Ai saved bricks and debris from his demolished studio and built the piece, “Souvenir from Shanghai.”

“And right after we finished [Souvenir from Shanghai,]  we received a paper that says, ‘Whatever you did is illegal here, you have to stop and demolish it.’” Weiwei said in ‘Ai Weiwei: Never sorry’.

China’s government arrested Ai a few months after demolishing his studio, and he said he stayed under constant surveillance. The government confiscated his passport, and he was not allowed to leave the country until 2015.

When asked if justice was possible. Ai responded, “I don’t really think so, but it’s worth trying. Because it’s hard, you have to try. Because it’s impossible, you have to keep trying.”

Ai currently lives and works in Berlin. “Ai Weiwei: Bare Life” will exhibit from Sept. 28 through Jan. 5, 2020.

The piece “Through” forces viewers to engage with the wooden beams and pillars by walking under or around it. Made from dismantled Qing Dynasty temples, the piece lays next to the debris of Ai’s Shanghai studio. Photo by Aly Camacho.

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