Whitehot Magazine

Ai Weiwei; Art And The Human Condition


Ai Weiwei, Self Portrait, Courtesy of the Artist

“Ai Wei Wei: 2016 Roots and Branches”
Mary Boone 745 Fifth Avenue and 541 West 24 Street and  
Lisson Gallery 504 West 24 Street
“Laundromat”, Jeffrey Deitch 18 Wooster Street
(November 5 – December 23, 2016)


         One might argue that the four exhibitions by Ai Wei Wei currently on view in Manhattan read as a profound statement on the human condition.  While some may associate this term with existential philosophy in the mid-twenty century, we might consider its meaning today as being more in line with global displacement and the impact of this displacement on testing the limits of our human capabilities. I mention this at the outset given that much controversial has followed the work of Ai Wei Wei who appears to combine activism with art.

            As currently shown in Laundromat at the Jeffery Deitch Gallery in lower SoHo, Ai not only gathers facts and information on the fate of refugees who are living out the consequences of this fateful chapter in our human history – as they come by the hundreds of thousands from regions in Pakistan, Syria, and Iraq where religious, political, and military turmoil is extant – but he is occasionally given to “act out” the fate of these refugees. As a result, Ai’s seriousness and commitment as an artist has often been overlooked or mistrusted, probably more for reasons of envy than a fully reasoned argument. There is little doubt that Ai Wei Wei is one of the major artists of our time as he has taken the enormous step of bringing his art into the world and conversely – even more to the point – the world into his art.

Ai Weiwei, Laundromat, Instalation View, Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch, New York. 

       On November 5, Ai opened exhibitions in midtown and in West Chelsea at both Mary Boone Galleries and at the important London-based Lisson Gallery.  This is in addition to the aforementioned exhibition at the regenerated Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. This quatrain of exhibitions by a single artist from outside of New York is extraordinary not so much because his work is being shown in four venues at the same time, but it is more about the artist’s breadth of content that makes for a highly stimulating dialogue and, in the process, brings us closer to what Ai Wei Wei has been struggling to make clear, namely that art is an open-minded process, where everything from cast-iron tree trunks to Greco-Roman wallpaper, from Lego portraits to a monumental re-configured tree, from porcelain teapot spouts to clothing once worn by refugees, now cleaned, pressed, dried, and finally hung on racks simulating the SoHo fashion district around it.  Any, if not all, of this may occasionally serve a political function, even if that function appears as a decoy for something else, something less obvious, below the surface, as in what slowly became obvious for many Americans on Election Night 2016.

Ai Weiwei, Iron Root, 2015, Cast iron, 180 x 240 x 340 cm, 70 7/8 x 94 1/2 x 133 7/8 in, Courtesy of Lisson Gallery, New York

            The works being shown at the uptown Mary Boone Gallery assert an elegant transformation of forms and materials, presented in such a way as to appear verging toward classical art through their meticulously refinement.  One example would include an installation of thousands of rejected tea spouts, mounted in a circle round the large central column in the gallery, serving as a counterpart to the sunflower seeds shown at the West Chelsea gallery (and in a larger scale at the Tate Modern) some four years ago. The multiplicity of repeating a small natural or ceramic element in order to establish a space beyond what is normally understood as “space’ is indeed conceptual, and yet, as with all important conceptual works, indirectly references human and environmental aspects of the environment.

Another example, in the adjacent room, is a standing polished rosewood cabinet with an innocuous, almost antique appearance. In fact, it is an exact replica of a metal trash bin turned upright.  Here the artist refers to an incident where five orphaned children in China tried warming themselves on a cold wintry day. They each climbed inside the bin and lit a fire. Ultimately, during the night, the inhalation of the smoke suffocated them. Ai’s comment is that thousands of orphaned children now wander the streets of Chinese cities as a result of displaced families being driven out of their country villages where the air and water have become dangerously contaminated.

Ai Weiwei, Installation View, Courtesy of Mary Boone, New York

       Currently living in Berlin, liberated after a period of several months without a passport, the artist – with these four exhibitions – has re-established a significance presence in his former residence of Manhattan where he lived and worked as a burgeoning artist for nearly 13 years during the decade of the 1980s before returning to Beijing in 1993.  During his stay in New York, Ai discovered the importance of Duchamp and Warhol, which structurally or conceptually have helped define his working process. Even in works normally understood in terms of their material base, such as the Roots and Branches on view at the Lisson, surrounded by figurative wallpaper, I would use the word “conceptual” to describe what Ai Wei Wei has done. In other words, he is a thinking artist who sees, and through the act of seeing he opens new doors or older doors that have been transformed through the collapse of Qing Dynastic walls built with doors. He is an artist who takes liberties that connect the hemispheres in ways that extend beyond language and beyond the meaning of what is “conceptual” in Western terms. In China, it would be difficult to find a serious artist who has not been grounded in a conceptual understanding of art. At this moment, Ai Wei Wei has made it clear that his work is about ideas that hold a transforming agency. WM



Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


view all articles from this author