Artist Ai Weiwei Fuses Art And Activism In Show At St. Louis’ Kemper Museum

When does a mirror selfie become high art? 

For artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, it happened in 2008 when he photographed himself inside an elevator. Chinese authorities arrested him to prevent him from testifying in the trial of a fellow activist. 

His now-iconic selfie, “Illumination,” is part of his exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis. The work ranges from delicate ceramics fashioned with ancient Chinese techniques to a carefully stacked pile of rubble. 

The wide-ranging show reflects Weiwei’s deep interest in honoring the past, while reshaping it into something new. 

As a young man studying film in New York City in the 1980s, Weiwei rejected the past. Later, he returned to China and visited an antiques market, where he was surprised to find pillars from ancient temples that had been dismantled amid the nation’s building boom. 

“Gradually I understand, we don’t have future if we don’t understand the past. It’s like a tree won’t stand on the bare ground, you know. It’s not possible. You have to [be] deeply rooted. Then you can grow,” Weiwei, 63, said in an interview at the Kemper. 

After jailing him multiple times and putting him under house arrest, Chinese authorities allowed Weiwei to leave China in 2015. He emigrated to Berlin and moved to England earlier this year. He remains fiercely critical not only of the Chinese government but how much of the world accepts its repressive policies. 

“The U.S. needs China. It cannot just cut off China. It’s not possible because their prosperity and their profit-making are so much based on the unsuitable conditions in China,” he said. “I don’t think the West wants China to become democratic, a so-called free society. It’s not possible. They cannot have any advantage for that. They only take [an] advantage when China is a society which have no basic recognition of human rights.”

Weiwei selected the items in the show, “Bare Life,” with Sabine Eckmann, the museum’s director and chief curator. The exhibition book, which Eckmann edited, notes that a Chinese Communist Party slogan during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s was “destruction before construction.”

In a Q&A at Washington University’s 560 Music Center, in front of a rapt audience of nearly 1,100, Weiwei said the Communist revolution caused a rupture with China’s history. 

“In my society, the revolution basically wiped out the whole traditions. So what we see is really disconnected,” he said. “I’m so enriched by [history], but by really understand[ing] it as to how to think the past can work for today. You know, how you connect it.” 

He fashioned the pillars he found in the antiques market into “Through,” a sprawling, abstract sculpture that visitors walk through and around. Some pillars appear to pierce Qing dynasty (1644-1912) tables.

This show marks the first time “Through” has been shown in the U.S. Nearby, “Table with Three Legs,” which was assembled under the artist’s direction by masters of traditional Chinese joinery, leans into a corner of the gallery. 

‘China is my readymade’

“The Odyssey,” a massive frieze in black and white covering two gallery walls, depicts war, refugee displacement and refugee resettlement as an ever-repeating historical pattern. Details like an “Open the border” sign are juxtaposed with figures that could be borrowed from ancient Greek and Egyptian art. It has the effect of rendering the refugee’s journey as both commonplace and heroic. 

Weiwei’s relationship with the past is complicated. He’s not merely recreating antique items, but making something new from inherited traditions. 

This tension is evident in “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” a series of three photographs that show him doing just that. In the first, he holds the item. In the second, the urn is in free fall. In the third, the artist looks defiantly at the camera, with shards of the broken antique scattered near his feet.

Adding an additional layer of distance, the version of the piece in “Bare Life” includes not the actual photos but painstaking recreations with gray, white and black Lego pieces. 

“The act of archeology is a destructive act. In order to discover, you have to destroy,” said Bradley Bailey, associate professor and director of the art history program at St. Louis University. “It’s a necessary thing. Could we say the same of art?”

“In order to discover and pave and pioneer, in many cases artists have had to maybe not physically destroy but emotionally, intellectually destroy earlier movements or artists who’ve come before them. Ai realized that in a way, maybe, in that work,” Bailey said. 

Weiwei builds from the work of the late French artist Marcel Duchamp, who took everyday objects, like a snow shovel — and most famously, a urinal — and presented them as finished pieces of art. But Bailey notes that, while assembling his “readymades,” Duchamp deliberately chose items that the viewer wouldn’t otherwise have strong feelings about. Weiwei infuses the practice with a political edge. 

“Bare Life” includes a collection of tear gas canisters that were used on refugees attempting to enter the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2016. “Forever Bicycle” is a hulking sculpture made from 720 stacked bicycles, turning the common item into a kind of monument. 

“China is my readymade,” Weiwei said at a press conference at the Kemper. “I think political situation is my readymade. And refugee situation. Because I always have to fuse my personal interpretation with [a] large context.”

The signature piece in “Bare Life” may be a new, untitled installation in the space that had been the museum’s entrance lobby before a recent expansion. The wall is covered with hyper-realistic digital illustrations of bombs made in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

As the wall curves to meet the ceiling about 30 feet above the ground, some of the bombs seem to hover over the heads of the viewers.

“It makes us get scared about these bombs, which sort of destroy much of the world and many human beings and make them homeless,” Eckmann said. “They’re seductive, too, in their beauty, in a way, and at the same time appalling.”

The bombs hover separate from but near the rest of the work, as if a prelude — or dark epilogue — to the concern with political persecution and refugee displacement expressed throughout the exhibition. 

At Weiwei’s press conference, a student journalist asked him if he thinks art can bring about social change. 

“I don’t really think so,” he said, “but it’s worth trying. Because it’s hard, so you have to try. And because it’s impossible, you have to keep trying.” 

If you go 

What: Ai Weiwei’s “Bare Life”

Where: Mildred Lane Kemper Museum, 1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, 63130

How much: Free

When: Exhibition open through Jan. 5

Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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