Ai Weiwei: Bare Life

I attended the grand reopening of Washington University’s newly renovated Kemper Art Museum. The show was created by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Spanning two galleries and composed of works both large and small his exhibit closes after this weekend. I was glad that I had gotten a chance to see it before it left town and hope to get Anne over there to see it too. Here is the museum’s explanation for his exhibit’s title:

Ai Weiwei: Bare Life, which is organized into two thematic sections, takes its title from the writings of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who has long examined the notion of bare, unprotected life and its manifestations throughout human history. In recent years, Agamben’s ideas have gained new force as approximately 70 million people have been displaced from their homelands and deprived of basic human rights.

Forever Bicycles is the largest and most impressive work in the show. It gets its name from a Chinese brand of bicycles that were popular during his youth. It is assembled from hundreds of interconnected silver bicycles. The bikes are assembled in “sheets”. There are ten sheets and the sheets are joined with pipe that runs through each bicycle’s bottom bracket, making it a 3D sculpture. The piece’s basic building block is two bicycles that are joined head tube to seat tube. These building blocks are then joined to each other using the front and rear wheel dropouts, causing most wheels to be shared between two bikes. The overall shape of this sculpture is that of an arch and it is so large that it fills the room. It was too big for me to get it all in one picture frame.

Wallpaper is a recurring medium for this show. The work Bombs, illustrates with life-sized renderings various WMDs from around the world. Another wallpaper work, Odyssey, shows the aftereffects of the use of these weapons, by creating endless rows of refugees, trudging across the wall to nowhere. Pictured is my favorite wallpaper design, Finger. It has detached arms flipping-off the viewer that are arranged in different patterns. Grapes uses traditional Chinese three-legged stools that have been fused together to create a sculpture that is designed to resemble a cluster of grapes. Like in Forever, the stools are interconnected, with each stool sharing a leg with another one, making another Chinese puzzle.

Ai first came to fame through his art. He then used his art and the platform that it provided to fuel his activism. His activism led him into conflict with the Chinese government and to his eventual exile from China. Thrust upon the world stage he has continued to work for human rights and peace. I was initially put-off with the adoration and reverence that the student-staff of the museum held Ai in, but upon reflection, I can accept their hero worship of him and agree.

This is the first time that I have been on the WashU campus for many years. In that interim the east end of the main Danforth campus has been transformed. This is the area below Brookings Hall, which was originally the administration building for the 1904 World’s Fair. After seemingly endless years of ceaseless construction, the parking lot that once existed above ground has been pushed underground. Its compacted footprint allowed for the erection of numerous new buildings, within whose central axis remains a pedestrian mall. Work is almost finished and it is looking pretty good now.

4 thoughts on “Ai Weiwei: Bare Life

  1. Enjoyed seeing the stools and bicycles in Melbourne. Bumped into Ai Wei Wei in the foyer and he took a photo of me from his taxi window and put it on his Instagram that evening!

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