Photo: Ai Weiwei, New York Photographs, 1983-1993, Ai Weiwei. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1983, black- and-white photograph. (Detail).
“Art is not an end but a beginning,” Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei observes, giving voice to the visual world that, at its very best best, sparks new ideas, experiences, emotions, and above all—dialogue. Art is a firestarter. It provides new perspectives and fresh ways of seeing the world, transcending the limitations of time, space, language, and borders. Art is not content with the status quo; it will upend all expectation in search of the unknown.
This has been Ai Weiwei’s journey his entire life—a process that began when his father, Ai Qing, was determined to be an enemy of the state for speaking out against the government in 1957. The family was exiled to a labor camp in the remote province of Xinjang when Ai Weiwei was just one year old, and his earliest years were spent bearing witness to the consequences of speaking truth to power. Rather than cower in the face of state-sponsored oppression, the experience emboldened Ai Weiwei, who has since committed his life and his practice to speaking out against the abuses of the government.
In 1983, at the age of 26, Ai Weiwei arrived in New York and took up residence on the East Village, where he began practicing photography as a way to keep a visual diary of daily life. Not yet famous, he lived in a tiny apartment that hosted countless friends who came and went, amassing some 10,000 photographs over a period of ten years. From these humble yet prolific beginnings, Ai Weiwei incorporated photography into his larger practice, using it as a means to convey the immediacy of the moment.
In a blog post from 2006, Ai Weiwei observed, “If photography can be considered art, then it must necessarily be a scattering of art’s inherent qualities, an innocent pressing of the shutter, a lie in the face of reality. In that moment of recording, the world that it faces dissolves like smoke.”
Indeed, one of photography’s greatest gifts is its ability to negotiate the space that lies between art and artifact, fiction and fact, construction and document. We wish to believe that the two-dimensional version of the three-dimensional world is accurate enough to act as proxy for the thing itself. Because of the way in which it mimics sight, it allows us to believe that the copy is sufficient in the absence of the original. This tension, inherent to the medium, will always compel us to see photography as art—and as something else.
Always on time, yet just one step ahead, Ai Weiwei’s photography practice was a forerunner for the visual diaries that have become de rigeur in the age of camera phones and social media, where we share not just our ideas and opinions with the word, but use photographs to capture what we see, feel, and believe. Through the advent of social media, most recently Instagram, Ai Weiwei has used his platform to draw attention to the global refugee crisis, which Crave featured last Fall.
Over the past thirty years, Ai Weiwei has used photography to challenge the ways we see the world, becoming a leading proponent of the practice of photo-activism. In honor of the work that he has done, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, Chicago, presents #AiWeiwei, a new exhibition tracing the evolution of his work, revealing the ways in which he has used the camera to question the very nature of art.
Opening April 13 and running through July 2, 2017, #AiWeiwei presents more than 25,000 prints and digital images from his most significant bodies of work including Selfie, Leg Gun, Photographs of Surveillance, 258 Fake, Weiweicam, Study of Perspective, Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn, Beijing Photographs 1993-2003, New York Photographs 1983-1993, and his iPhone photos of refugees.
There is a distinct sense of artlessness, of a total disregard for the formal qualities of photography that have used the medium as a means to establish itself within the hallowed halls of the art world. Ai Weiwei, it appears, could care less about the aesthetics of formalism and instead embraces the camera as a tool, a piece of technology that can be used to record, to document, to critique, to provoke, and to confuse. The effect is decidedly as political as the subjects he addresses, a firm middle-finger to the proclivities of the status quo and their desire for conformity to self-maintained hierarchies.
For Ai Weiwei, the photographs are just the beginning of the conversation. They are not the final word. They are questions, comments, incomplete sentences, invitations to engage and dig below the surface. They do not create a sense of satisfaction nor completion but rather stick in your craw, gnaw at your soul, and inspire you to take action that is entirely your own.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.