Ai Weiwei’s Visions of the East Village

July 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm

The work of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, political activist and — until recently — prisoner,  is on display at Asia Society Museum. The exhibit consists of 227 of the artist’s photographs, individually selected by Ai himself from 10,000 negatives. The images span the decade after the artist first moved to the East Village, 1983-1993.

MetroFocus spoke to Melissa Chiu, museum director of Asia Society, about the exhibition, Ai’s release and the political implications of his art.

Q: Why did the museum decide to feature this exhibition now?

A: My expertise and interest in Chinese contemporary art has meant that I’ve always been interested in Ai Weiwei’s art, and when I became aware of the archives, I was interested in bringing them to the museum.

We were in discussion with Ai Weiwei for over a year, well before his arrest in April. When the arrest happened, we weren’t sure if the exhibit would be able to go forward, so we didn’t publicize it. But then when we found we were able to get the photographs, we went ahead with it.

It was an unexpected positive thing, the fact that he is no longer in detention, and the fact that he is at least at home. I think if anything, the show is a little bit of a homecoming for Ai Weiwei.

Q: What story do these photographs tell about the East Village during this period?

A: Some of the photographs show protests in Tompkins Square Park, largely generated by the gentrification in Ai Weiwei’s neighborhood…They show various tensions between police and protestors, Wigstock [an annual drag event in the East Village] and some of the first AIDS protests. There were a number of socially transformative things happening in New York at this time.

Ai Weiwei’s apartment became something of a hub for Chinese artists and intellectuals who were arriving in New York City. It was really a kind of an exodus from China. This young generation of artists wanted to experience the world and learn about art from different places, and they came to New York. Many of these artists have achieved success, such as Tan Dun, the classical composer, and the artist Xu Bing. There were other luminary figures who were living downtown who Ai Weiwei was close to, such as Alan Ginsburg and many others. The collection provides a snapshot of the city as well as of the Chinese community.

Q: How has Ai’s detention affected this exhibit? Has his release had an impact on the show?

A: Both his arrest and subsequent release were unexpected. It was an unexpected positive thing, the fact that he is no longer in detention, and the fact that he is at least at home. I think if anything, the show is a little bit of a homecoming for Ai Weiwei. He spent a decade here, and now we are presenting this collection here.

Q: Ai Weiwei leads a political life as well as an artistic one. Do you think this exhibition speaks to an intersection between art and politics?

A: In a way it does, in that many of the photographs of protest show the value of an individual voice and a collective voice. And I’m quite certain that this has impacted Ai Weiwei’s life and work today in China.

MetroFocus Intern Kira Cohen conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

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