Ai Weiwei’s photo selfie, Illumination (2009), which signaled the start of the artist-activist’s notoriety, is a defining image in the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s new exhibition, #AiWeiWei, covering a whole wall in the main gallery and serving as the brochure cover.
Ai Weiwei has achieved critical acclaim in the art world for a practice that frequently involves political activism. Illumination is a selfie Ai took when he was being arrested prior to testifying on behalf of a fellow activist. The image was posted on the internet and Ai continually uses that venue as well as social media to share his messages and his art. #AiWeiwei at the Museum of Contemporary Photography coherently and aesthetically connects the man and his art.
Born in Beijing in 1957 to a renowned poet, Ai’s family was exiled to a labor camp for much of his youth. As an adult, Ai’s activism took on global proportions when he spoke out against the Chinese government around the 2008 Olympics and the Sichuan earthquake that killed thousands of school children.
#AiWeiwei is an exhibition specifically designed for the Museum of Contemporary Photography that traces his interest in documenting himself, his friends, and his surroundings, a practice very much in line with today’s selfie culture. The installation is presented in reverse chronological order, with his earlier works on the upper levels. The exhibition’s narrative not only follows Ai’s career but also subtly illustrates developments in photographic technology.
Starting on the third floor and working down, the show begins with predominantly black and white photographs documenting his early years in New York and then Beijing. Ai moved to the East Village in 1983 and began recording his daily life with his camera in addition to capturing political events. In 1993, Ai returned to China and continued his practices of diaristic photography and being socially-engaged. As Beijing transformed into an urbanized, global city, Ai also embraced modern technology, adopting color film and digital cameras.
The main galleries are dominated by grid-like arrangements of photographs that are a testament to the power and reach of modern photographic technology and the selfie. Many of these artworks are groupings of photographs that originally were published on his blog, and later on his Instagram account. Selfies, consisting of 684 images taken over the past four years, sets the stage for the artworks to come, in form and content. Many of the activities and settings could very well be from our own lives, making the piece highly accessible.
In 2014, after the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Ai posted a photograph of himself on Instagram and Twitter holding his leg out like a gun. The image was loosely based on a pose Ai saw at a ballet performance in which dancers held their legs up as if they were shooting rifles. As the image spread on social media, thousands shared their own versions of the pose. Ai selected 765 images for the exhibition, creating an artwork that truly is a public collaboration.
Study of Perspective, a series spanning over a decade, may become a favorite for its obvious and empathetic message. In these images we see Ai giving the finger to institutions of cultural and political power, including the White House, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Taj Mahal, Colosseum, and Houses of Parliament. His title encompasses both meanings of the word “perspective”: one’s point of view and the artistic device used to create the illusion of distance on a flat surface. The most recent work in the series was taken in 2016 in front of Trump Tower in New York. This image captures the ethos of today’s politics for many. During the course of the campaign, while walking in the Loop, I saw a Latino family taking a selfie in front of Trump’s building, all of them making the same universal gesture of defiance.
Ai, like many of us, documents and shares his activities through photography and social media. Unlike us, he also had the government doing the same. From 2011 to 2015, Ai was not allowed to leave the country and was constantly monitored. His Photographs of Surveillance series documents him observing his observers. In an age where our personal information is often shared without our knowledge, these photographs are potent reminders of the extremes to which governments and can go. After years of being under surveillance, Ai left China in 2015 and currently lives in Berlin.
Ai’s most recent work Relating to Refugees, 2015 – 2016, is the most visually stunning and marks a shift from a focus on himself to a focus on others. The piece is an installation of over 16,000 images covering three walls that from afar looks like an abstract color grid. Ai is currently working on a documentary, Human Flow, scheduled for release this year. During his travels, he used his cellphone to photograph the people and places he visited. Those images comprise the work, marking a transition from his early black-and-white camera work to using a cellphone as his artistic medium.
Ai Weiwei’s biography is not only fascinating, but it is an integral part of his artistic practice. The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s presentation does an exceptional job at creating an exhibition that gives equal importance to the art and the person. In addition, #AiWeiwei serves as an insightful commentary on the use of selfies and social media for political activism.
#AiWeiwei runs through July 2, 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (600 S. Michigan Ave). The museum is open 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday, with extended hours on Thursdays until 8pm. It is open Sunday from 12pm-5pm. Admission is free.
All photos courtesy of MoCP