Chinese artist, activist, and sometime-architect Ai Weiwei will be an unavoidable presence in Los Angeles this fall with three simultaneous exhibit openings. It’s a big moment for the artist, who has heretofore not really had a major show in the city.
Chinese history and global politics are at the heart of Ai’s art–and while his dissident views have found receptive audiences abroad, they have often caused him to run afoul of the Chinese government. Things came to a head for Ai when the devastating May 2008 earthquake hit Sichuan. He believed the Chinese government was complicit in the death toll, particularly of children who were killed when a cheaply built school collapsed, and that they were engaged in a cover up. He launched an investigation, which he chronicled on his blog, until the authorities shut down his access, after which he turned to Twitter–and to his art, creating large sculptures and installations inspired by the tragedy.
As China’s best-known contemporary artist, he used his celebrity to attract considerable attention to the story, which angered Beijing. While pursuing his investigation into the earthquake in 2009, he was beaten severely by Chengdu police, and when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while in Germany later that year, doctors cited the assault as the likely cause. Chinese authorities staged hacking attacks on Google with fake accounts attributed to Ai in an attempt to frame him, and flagged his financial accounts as under criminal investigations. In January of 2011, after he was briefly placed on house arrest, his Shanghai studio was demolished, ostensibly for a lack of proper permits.
In April, 2011, Ai planned to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, but was apprehended at the airport. With him in custody, a squad of police went to his studio, confiscated computers and hard drives, and detained Ai’s wife and studio staff. He would continue to be held until June 22.
If the government’s goal in the arrest had been to silence or discredit Ai and his work, they did not succeed. A global movement kicked off, with social media and art world leaders pressuring for his release, catapulting him to even greater fame than before.
Protests were staged in galleries and museums around the world; the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego staged a 24-hour sit in amid some of Ai’s works which were on display. In August of 2011, LACMA installed his Zodiac Project sculpture, a recreation of the bronze animal heads representing the signs of the Chinese Zodiac that was cast for the Old Summer Palace in Beijing around 1750, but destroyed a century later during the Second Opium War. Shortly after, filmmaker Alison Klayman’s award-winning documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, debuted.
While released from house arrest, Ai still had to face tax and financial investigations designed to shutter his studios, and was not permitted a passport to leave China until 2015. Once he was allowed to leave, he moved his primary studio to Berlin, and established a second office in Greece, though he travels back to China periodically. Disconnected from his own country, he felt a particular connection to the refugee crisis that filled international news in 2016 and 2017. He set out to travel around the world documenting the crises for his film Human Flow, and has created a series of art pieces inspired by the plight of refugees.
A series of large-scale installations from that series will appear when the first of his three L.A. shows opens at the Marciano Art Foundation on September 28. Sculptures of boats, humans, and Chinese zodiac figures will be made from bamboo, sisal, and silk, the materials associated with traditional kite-making.
The next day, another, more wide-ranging show of Ai’s work opens at Jeffrey Deitch’s new Hollywood gallery. This show will be the first for the long-awaited L.A. space from the longtime New York gallerist who helmed MOCA from 2010 to 2013. Among the works on display will be a reprise of an installation staged in Berlin in 2014 made from 6,000 salvaged wooden stools, and a new series of Ai’s zodiac figure sculptures made, this time, from Lego blocks.
Opening on October 4, the third show might be the one that has the most lasting impact on L.A., after the other two have closed. Ai is collaborating with the United Talent Agency on the design of its new permanent gallery in Beverly Hills. Two years ago, UTA opened a space in Boyle Heights to showcase the work of artists affiliated with the agency’s fine art division; when a warehouse space near UTA’s Beverly Hills headquarters office opened up, they decided to relocate the gallery. Ai is represented by UTA for his film work, and happened to be shown the raw space–and immediately “responded to it,” according to The New York Times.
While Ai stopped taking any architecture commissions after his fraught dealings relating to the “Birds Nest” stadium he designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he apparently decided to come out of retirement to work on converting the warehouse into a gallery space. UTA Artist Space, with its Ai-designed elements, will open on July 12, with a show of Color Field paintings which will run until Ai’s own exhibit opens. This third show will focus specifically on marble sculptures.
Showing three exhibits in the same city at the same time is intentional on Ai’s part, but it’s not exactly a group effort. “This is how Weiwei likes to do things: when he comes to a city, he takes over a city,” Jamie Manné, deputy director of the Marciano Art Foundation, told The New York Times. “It’s definitely not a collaboration, but we’re happy to coordinate with everyone.”
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