Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday June 23, 2011

Wednesday night, Chinese authorities released dissident artist Ai Weiwei on bail, and on condition that he not speak publicly about his 81-day detention at an undisclosed location. The state news agency, Xinhua, said police had released him "because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes" and a chronic illness.

In an interview before he was incarcerated, Mr. Ai said that his father, a poet who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, did not want him to be an artist for fear that he would suffer. "But I became an artist because, even under pressure, my father still had somewhere nobody could touch," he explained. "Even when the whole world was dark, there was something warm in his heart. No matter what happens, nothing can prevent the historical process by which society demands freedom and democracy," he added. "What can they do to me? Nothing more than banish, kidnap, or imprison me – perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air – but they don't have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both joy and the ability to fly.”


Left: Ai Weiwei outside Thompson Square Park, 1984. Right: Filmmaker Chen Kaige, 1985. Courtesy Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.

Hardship is not new to Ai Weiwei, who, as a child, lived in an underground house carved out of the landscape by his father. As a young man he spent a dozen or so years living in New York’s East Village, where he shared his tiny basement apartment with fellow artists, composers and filmmakers visiting from China. He did odd jobs and worked as a sketch artist, mostly in Times Square, to pay the rent.

Although he came to the attention of Ethan Cohen, whose downtown gallery specialized in contemporary Chinese art, the exhibition and sale of his work still did not offer much of a living. In 1991, he told The New York Times that, “After 10 years living here, I don’t think there’s so much opportunity.” When a fellow Chinese street artist was killed in an altercation with a passer-by, Mr Ai returned to Beijing.

While he was living here, Mr. Ai took close to 10,000 photographs to document his life and work, his surroundings, and the atmosphere of the time. Many of the photographs were taken in his East 3rd Street apartment, and trace the beginnings of his conceptual art practice. They also depict East Village poetry readings with Allan Ginsberg, riots in Tompkins Square Park, drag queens at Wigstock, and well-known artists and intellectuals from China, such as filmmaker Chen Kaige, composer Tan Dun and artist Xu Bing. Next week, 227 of his New York photographs made between 1983-1993 will go on view at Asia Society, accompanied by a 331-page catalogue produced by Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing, which organized the exhibition in association with Asia Sociaty.

Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993will be on view from June 29 through August 14 at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue at 70th Street, NY, NY.


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