“We have to see humanity as one.” Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is one of the world’s most recognised contemporary voices. Across sculpture, photography, installation and film, the artist and activist engages with the world’s social issues, continually questioning injustice. He is recognised for powerful and compassionate artworks addressing themes of political, ethical and social urgency. Over 35 such pieces are on view in Bare Life at Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis. The new show provides, as the gallery notes: “new insight into the artist’s abiding concern for human rights and the global condition of humanity whilst showcasing his profound engagement with Chinese culture past and present.”
Approximately 70 million people have now been displaced around the world. Bare Life visualises the effects of the refugee crisis through works such as Odyssey (2016), a large-scale frieze narrating the journey of those forced to flee their homes, including representations of war, journeys across land and sea and life in camps. Documentaries including Human Flow (2017) and the new The Rest (2019) are also screening, looking at the ongoing effects of conflict. A deep concern for welfare runs through the works, including Tear Gas Canisters (2016), which comprises altered cans used by police against refugees.
Forever Bicycles (2019), shown at the top of the page, is a new, large-scale, site-specific installation. The giant arch comprises 720 bicycles by iconic Chinese brand Forever. It reinterprets everyday found objects to raise questions about continuity and change, tradition and revolution – exploring at the radical shifts shaping China since the millennium. Transformation is also at the heart of Through (2007-8). Wooden pillars sourced from demolished temples cross at sharp diagonals, intersecting with Qing-dynasty (1644–1912) tables. It forms, as Kemper Art Museum explains, “a complex network of interdependent structures that condense China’s ruptured history.” Kemper also highlights a 2015 interpretation of the artist’s iconic triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. The work, rendered in LEGO, revisits the iconic 1995 piece, which depicts the artist destroying a 2000-year-old artefact. It further investigates cultural shifts, articulating the relationship between demolition and creation into the 21st century.
The exhibition runs until 5 January. Find out more here.
Lead image: Ai Weiwei: Bare Life, installation view, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, 2019. Image by Joshua White.