Ai Weiwei at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography: Activist Artist Faces the State

Ai Weiwei at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography: Activist Artist Faces the State
Installation view. Ai Weiwei "Illumination" (2008) at Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP)

This is a remarkable moment for a major exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to open in Chicago - especially Chicago, the city that has drawn some of the current President's most virulent attacks. And especially this show,  focused on the artists' activist works.

Installation view. Ai Weiwei "Illumination" (2009) right, "Leg gun" (2015) left at Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP), 2017

Installation view. Ai Weiwei "Illumination" (2009) right, "Leg gun" (2015) left at Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP), 2017

"#AiWeiwei" opened at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography on April 13th, the same week a doctor of Chinese descent was dragged off a plane in Chicago by Aviation Department officers, and a few days after the US President famously ate beautiful chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago with Chinese President Xi Jinping. After dessert he told Mr. Xi  the US had bombed a Syrian airport. The day of the opening, the US military dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan.

All of this is coincidence. None of this was planned. The exhibit was initiated months ago, at a time there was no knowledge or indication the White House would be so occupied.

"A Study of Perspective". (19915-2017). Ai Weiwei. Installation view. Museum of Contemporary Photography.

"A Study of Perspective". (19915-2017). Ai Weiwei. Installation view. Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Yet the themes in Ai's exhibit resonate distinctly within this context: authoritarianism, surveillance, the global refugee crisis, a militaristic mindset, the police state - and individual action in the face of all this; the necessity of creative resistance.

It's a perfect time for the Museum of Contemporary Photography to bring this work here now.

Mr. Ai designed and curated this show - it's a manner of working he honed during the four years Chinese authorities held his passport. Unable to travel, he arranged exhibitions from afar - building an exact scale model in his Berlin studio, using careful measurements from the College's architect. According to Natasha Egan, Museum Director, the minor idiosyncrasies of the Museum’s historic space offered unique characteristics to the installation.

"Photographs of Surveillance" 38.03.2012 258 Caochangdi, Beijing Surveillance Cameras

"Photographs of Surveillance"
38.03.2012
258 Caochangdi, Beijing
Surveillance Cameras

Ai Weiwei works explicitly in the resonance between art and politics. And this exhibit centers there, on work that targets the totalitarian state; political leaders who demand to rule unchallenged, and the imperative of the individual to resist.

One of the most distressing political realities now in the US is this flavor of totalitarianism - the election of a President who not only seems uninformed about of the requirements of his job, but is in fact aggressively engaged in dismantling norms of Democracy.

'Woke-ness' is also a flavor of our day. Nothing can be taken for granted. Democracy, which had seemed settled and stable is instead revealed as fragile. It takes constant work to make it work. It's astonishing how vulnerable even basic human freedoms become when a nationalist autocrat tricks a nation into giving him the reins.

This exhibition presents the works of this one artist who relentlessly, resolutely continues working in the face of impossibility. When under surveillance, he turns watch on the watchers. Imprisoned by Chinese authorities in his own home, he broadcasts online his every move, until the state shuts him down.

The MoCP #AiWeiwei show is focused on the artist's activism, and also on technology - his use of social media, and on the sheer glut of images we contend with in today's world.

Installation view. Ai Weiwei "Relating to Refugees" (2015-16)

Installation view. Ai Weiwei "Relating to Refugees" (2015-16)

The installation includes "Relating to Refugees" (2015-2016) an entire room papered floor to ceiling and nearly wall-to-wall with 16,276 images made in 40 Mediterranean refugee camps. It's overwhelming, and strangely intimate. Snapshots, like giant contact sheets coat the walls. Each individual frame claims its own presence, and yet remains interwoven with every adjoining frame. The effect is of profound connection. Individual action within a global, devastating sweep.

Detail, "Relating to Refugees" (2015-16) at Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) 2017

Detail, "Relating to Refugees" (2015-16) at Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) 2017

In the main gallery are large, gridded collages of #selfies for which the artist is well-known, and “Leg gun” a kind of memed riff on a Chinese ballet performance in which dancers held their own legs as though they were guns. Ai shared his version of the pose on his blog and others picked it up. A vulnerable global body transformed into a weapon for creative action.

In an adjoining room is Ai Weiwei's most recent work "Study in Perspective: Trump Tower"; the latest in an ongoing series a play on the metaphor of perspective in artists' vision.

"Study of Perspective (Trump tower, New York City, USA) 2017.

"Study of Perspective (Trump tower, New York City, USA) 2017.

The MoCP exhibition runs concurrently with a show in Grand Rapids, Michigan at Meijer Gardens, an exhibition that strikes a very different tone than that of MoCP. “Natural State” concentrates not on Ai's activism, but rather on his renown. The Gardens' site describes him as "a definitive cultural voice for the 21st Century" and mentions his ability to transform materials to evoke meaning. "Backpacks are stand-ins for children", without referencing the political implication or reason for this choice. Still, events scheduled at the Gardens during the exhibition include a screening of Ai's documentary film "Never Sorry", and a lecture titled "The Artist as Activist" on May 21st.

The MoCP will host a panel discussion on this topic also: "Art, Politics, and the Media in the Era of Post-Truth”, Tuesday, April 18 at 6 PM. at the Museum.

Check out a slideshow of images from the MoCP's #AiWeiwei show here.

And for a lot more information on Ai Weiwei, see the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

 

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Installation view. Ai Weiwei at Museum of Contemporary Photography. 2017

Installation view. Ai Weiwei at Museum of Contemporary Photography. 2017

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