Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983—1993 showcases a cultural phenomenon

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      At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until November 30

      Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei is, truly, a cultural phenomenon.

      His practice ranges across filmmaking, photography, sculpture, performance, architecture, magazine publishing, curatorship, and, most provocatively, political activism, often through blogging and social media. His committed advocacy of free expression and human rights, in China and abroad, and his criticism of the corruption and oppressiveness of the Chinese government resulted in his arrest in 2011.

      Since his release, he has been subject to intense surveillance and travel restrictions. He continues, however, to make and exhibit art nationally and internationally, and to post photographs to his blog.

      Ai personally selected the 227 black-and-white photos (from some 10,000 negatives) on view at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Organized and circulated by Beijing’s Three Shadows Photography Art Center, the exhibition spotlights images he shot in New York City, from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. What’s revealed in these silver gelatin prints—mounted in large, pale frames and installed chronologically around the gallery—is his conceptual coming of age as an artist.

      Not that the seeds of his practice hadn’t already been sown. The son of Ai Qing, a famed Chinese poet and ardent Communist, Ai Weiwei grew up in the shadow of his father’s professional downfall. During the Cultural Revolution, Ai Qing was exiled, with his family, to the remote northwestern region of Xinjiang, where his job was scrubbing communal toilets. Still, before Ai Weiwei arrived in the United States, he had returned to Beijing, studied animation, and been a member of an early avant-garde group of artists, the Stars.

      "Wang Ying and Tan Dun, East 3rd Street Apartment", 1986.

      Ai landed in New York City in his mid-20s, with a scholarship to attend the Parsons School of Design. Almost immediately, he dropped out, dissatisfied. He subsequently supported himself with a variety of odd jobs, including babysitter, house cleaner, and sidewalk portrait artist, all the while painting and shooting photo after photo.

      In the publication that accompanies the show, Ai tells Stephanie H. Tung that he took the photos because he was bored. He took them reflexively, he says, simply pointing his camera and pressing the button. He also states he wasn’t interested in them as art, nor did he consider himself a documentarian. Although his aesthetic coincides with the intentionally nonprofessional look of conceptual photography, it seems that Ai had no conscious idea he was creating a photo-conceptual project. Still, the images have become that—and an articulate journal of Ai’s formative time in New York.

      Because of the photos’ chronological installation, it’s possible to track Ai’s expanding field of interest and understanding, from interior and personal to external and political. His early images depict his small, sparsely furnished apartments, first in Brooklyn and then, more lengthily and importantly, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They progress from numerous self-portraits and shots, both staged and spontaneous, of visiting Chinese friends and associates, many of them sleeping on the floor of his apartment, to images of American-born artists and writers, and then on to a range of socially and politically charged street scenes. They also record a few museum visits and a deep interest in the practice of Marcel Duchamp. One of the earliest images here is of a profile portrait Ai created of Duchamp, using a wire hanger and sunflower seeds.

      It’s interesting to track Ai’s famous and soon-to-be famous subjects, among them Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, composer Tan Dun, and painters Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong; American beat poet Allen Ginsberg, photographer Robert Frank, and experimental artist, filmmaker, and ethnomusicologist Harry Everett Smith. There are odd photos, too, shot on the street, of Al Sharpton speaking at a protest rally and Bill Clinton campaigning.

      "Bill Clinton at his last campaign stop in New York", 1992.

      Significantly, Ai was on hand to record the East Village’s contested transition from a semiderelict neighbourhood of rundown and abandoned buildings, with its squatters, beggars, and homeless people, to a cheap, funky area where artists chose to live and work, and on to its inevitable gentrification. Protests, performances, and a famous riot in Tompkins Square Park, met by a startling degree of police brutality, open Ai’s work up. It’s here that he seems to evolve an appreciation for the freedom of assembly and expression that is part of the western democratic process, and also alarm at the violence used to suppress that expression.

      The protests against the loss of affordable housing that Ai records in New York in the late 1980s—including a shot of a man with a sign reading “NO HOUSING NO PEACE”—echo uncomfortably in Vancouver in the year 2014. No housing, no peace, indeed.