For his first show in L.A., Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei scores a hat trick with three simultaneous exhibitions, at a trio of the city's most impressive art venues. The newly relocated UTA Artist Space presents "Cao/Humanity" beginning Oct. 4 in its Beverly Hills gallery, whose interior was designed by the artist in anticipation of this show. Across town, on Sept. 29, New York gallerist and one-time MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch inaugurated his new Hollywood space on Highland Avenue, renovated by Frank Gehry, with Ai's Zodiac, a series of large-scale works, on view through Jan. 5.
"There's a public institution, a private gallery, there's a gallery related to the entertainment world, so the nature of the shows are very different, the audience is also very different," Ai tells L.A. Weekly about choosing venues, including the no less architecturally operatic Marciano Art Foundation, showing his latest work, Life Cycle, through March 3. "The Marciano Art Foundation offers a large architectural space you don't get in most cities."
The final work from his Beijing studio before it was bulldozed by police over the summer, Life Cycle is a massive installation of bamboo figures in a bamboo pontoon boat. It's an extension of his 2017 installation Law of the Journey, which offered a similar construct of inflatable PVC rubber. The work is commenting, like his 2017 documentary, Human Flow, on the worldwide refugee crisis.
Many know Ai for his "Bird's Nest" design of the Beijing National Stadium, a symbol of the 2008 Summer Olympics. He might have been chosen by the government committee in an attempt to make amends after it exiled his father, poet Ai Qing, for roughly 20 years in China's western wilderness before reinstating him following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Raised in the dire circumstances of a refugee before finally moving to Beijing to study art in the late '70s, Ai was jailed by the government in 2011 for criticizing the handling of underprivileged citizens during the Olympics and for drawing attention to the 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan that claimed over 70,000 victims, some 5,385 of them children. Freed from house arrest and with his passport reinstated in 2015, he relocated to Berlin, where he now lives, though he plans to move to upstate New York.
"It's part of my longtime fight for human rights, human dignity," is how he explains his latest work on a theme that has been vital to him even before moving to Berlin, where he first encountered Iraqi and Syrian refugees. "I got involved because I have a longtime interest in human conditions, not just in China. Even in the early '90s in New York, I started to record about police brutality, gentrification in lower Manhattan, Tompkins Square Park and anti–Desert Storm war protests. I've always been an activist."
Surrounding Life Cycle is a companion installation, Windows, which includes suspended bamboo creatures and items demonstrating influences from Marcel Duchamp to the sculptural gesture of a middle finger, a staple of Ai's work. Drawn from the ancient Chinese text Shan Hai Jing, a guidebook on mythical beasts dating to the 4th century B.C., some are wrapped in silk and some left bare, allowing overhead lights to cast a mesh of intriguing shadows on the walls, adding depth and layers.
"Today, there's not too much mythology anymore. We've replaced it with science and the imagination about the future," Ai notes. "But the richness of our memory and imagination is still there."
The main gallery at the Marciano is given over to the artist's 2010 Sunflower Seeds, 49 tons of life-sized porcelain seeds made by 1,600 artisans over a period of two years. Just a few steps away, gathered in a matching symmetrical rectangle on the floor, is 2015's Spouts, thousands of tea spouts broken from kettles dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1289). The spouts came from the same place the seeds were made, a village with a 1,000-year history of porcelain making. Ai began gathering them, one by one, eventually accumulating thousands.
"It takes patience, time, and to reflect on cultural condition or economic conditions about 1,000 years ago and why people have to create so many," Ai explains. "My biggest curiosity is how they lived and what kind of language they had, which kind of material reflects that society."
The show at UTA Artist Space, "Cao/Humanity," presents a series of recently carved glass sculptures, starting with Cao, the Mandarin word for "grass," with a vernacular meaning of "fuck." It also references his former Chinese studio's nickname, Cao Chang De, which sat on grassy land. Other unlikely items captured in marble are a security camera and Hands Without Bodies, a pair of hands clasped in a handshake. Up Yours depicts the head, shoulder, arm and hand with upraised middle finger, an unmistakably Ai-like artwork, mixed among traditional-looking porcelain vases made by the artist in 2017.
The Deitch show is anchored by a 2013 work, Stools, employing 5,929 footstools from the Ming and Ching dynasties — a ubiquitous household item at the time —placed in a 72-foot-square formation. Each shows wear and tear from years of use, telling the story of generations of ownership. The traditional is modernized in Zodiac, a series of 12 Lego animals from the Chinese zodiac, drawn from his 2010 bronze installation, Animals/Zodiac Heads, which stopped at LACMA in 2012 during its multicity tour.
"The 12 signs of the zodiac juxtaposed with images of buildings that represent monarchies or totalitarian governments or colonial oppression; houses of parliament, the White House, the Roman Coliseum, these are places where Weiwei visited and did a famous series giving the finger in front of them," Deitch says of his gallery's inaugural show. "It has a connection with a deep Chinese aesthetic tradition and an international modernist tradition, and addresses universal contemporary issues like the refugee crisis. It has historic references and formal restraint but also it engages with humanistic issues."
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Ai got the idea while collecting photos of political prisoners, some of which were out of focus. In order to make his series more democratic, he wound up pixelating the images. Legos work as three-dimensional pixelation, but the Lego Group, which manufactures the toy blocks, objected to them being used for political purposes. So Ai did what he often does in his battle against institutional injustice: He took to social media, stationing 20 automobiles with open sunroofs in cities around the world (including at MOCA Geffen for a time), collecting carloads of donated Legos. In response, Lego Group changed its policy.
"My experiences is to put myself in the spotlight to make sure they don't do something unnoticed," Ai confesses about a tactic that got him released from a Chinese jail when international pressure became too much for the government to bear. He sits back, happy to have the stress of mounting three simultaneous shows behind him. "So far, OK."