Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Chinaman in New York

Ai Weiwei is a well known Chinese contemporary artist, best known for his sculptures, installations and architecture.

He helped come up with the initial concept of the Bird's Nest for the National Stadium, but left the project before it was completed, complaining that it is part of a "pretend smile" of bad taste. But he defended his participation in the project, saying "I did it because I love design".

His father, Ai Qing was a poet and during the Cultural Revolution was denounced and sent to a labour camp in Xinjiang. Ai Weiwei also spent five years there.

In 1978 he studied at the Beijing Film Academy where he took classes with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.

In the early 1980s, Ai Weiwei went to New York and did performance art, installations and studied at Parsons School of Design.

And for about 10 years, Ai recorded his life there through his camera.

He took some 10,000 photographs that are currently being exhibited at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, a place that he helped set up with the founders.

It's in an area called Caochangdi, but it's hard to find, just beyond the Fifth ring road.

I took the 970 bus that seemed to go to that area but when I got off, I didn't really know where I was and just wandered into a side street. After a while I reached a bus stop and just then the 909 bus was going to Caochangdi and I hopped on.

It was at the next stop that just passed the sign for the gallery.

After another five minute walk in a very remote area, I finally reached the mini compound made up of contemporary style buildings in gray Chinese brick.

And inside was only a small selection of the thousands of photographs Ai took.

Most of them are of a young Ai looking bored or indifferent, inside his apartment, at the New York subway, drag queens and protests.

There are also pictures of his now well-known pals -- directors Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang, artists Chen Yifei, Xu Bing, composer Tan Dun as well as poet Allen Ginsberg and artist Jasper Johns. He also caught Bill Clinton and Al Sharpton on film.

These are Ai's thoughts on his New York photographs:
These photographs were taken between 1983 and 1994 during the decade I spent living in New York before returning to Beijing. At that time I didn't really have anything to do. I was just hanging out, whiling away my time everyday by taking pictures of the people I met, places I went, my friends, my neighbourhood, the street and the city...

... Life in the past fifty years has been much like a falling leaf with no goal or direction. In the end, however, the leaf will land in some corner. The images' appearance and order are much like this. They are disorganized, but paths of thought appear that seem most clear when the photos are all mixed up...

And the exhibition is just as he describes it, a collection of photographs with no particular objective or theme, but images of his past life as an observer in New York.

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