Feature photo courtesy of @aiweiwei_studio

Two young artists contemplate Ai Weiwei’s BareLife exhibition. 


Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist most revered (and criticized) for how his masterful interactions between fine art and prudent activism. His works contemplate the intersections of history, politics, place, time, and medium. At best, his work gives layers to international crises through personal storytelling of overcoming political exile and suppression within China. At worst, his work is performative, seemingly exploiting the stories of others for personal acclaim on his newfound global platform, all the while offering no solution to the refugee crisis. 

Decades after his debut in the 70s, Ai’s global critiques have made their way midwest, to the recently renovated Mildred Lane Kemper Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. One Saturday afternoon in November, two young artists met up to visit Ai Weiwei’s BareLife exhibition. 

The two women come from different landscapes within the world of art. Moira Smith holds a BFA and 6 years experience in art handling and preparation, with extensive knowledge of the St. Louis fine arts community. Sarah Burack runs a sustainable jewelry shop and has a background in anthropology and art. This summer, Moira was a part of the install team for the Ai Weiwei exhibition, working directly with Ai Weiwei, his staff, and the Kemper staff to fully install his works. 

Step into the museum with Sarah and Moira as they converse on socio-political topics, contemporary Chinese art, and the complex interactions between individual and institution. Excited to see this internationally renowned artists and equipped with a willingness to critically confront the exhibition as a whole, the following conversation unraveled...

SB: Wow -- this is a bit overwhelming. First off, for context, Washington University in St. Louis has *completely* redone their entire east end since I was an undergraduate here. It’s totally beautiful, down to the fonts and lighting in the underground parking garage.

MS: Yeah, it’s really nice. I’ve heard the graduate MFA students don’t like their new shiny studios though; they aren’t allowed to get paint on the ground. Sort of an introduction to institutions trying to better their communities, for whatever motivation, but inevitably impeding expression…

The women walk into the Kemper Art Museum and into the Ebsworth Gallery. Admission is free.

SB: I’ve never seen so many pieces of art in this gallery… it’s almost cramped. I think I saw a picture on instagram of you building this giant sculpture of chromatic bicycles, and I saw other posts too, but I didn’t realize it was so massive. 

MS: Forever Bicycles (2012) pays homage to the loss of student lives in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Ai Weiwei responded [to the disaster] by making many bodies of work in conjunction with efforts to obtain more information from the Chinese government. Try to fathom that this piece, made of 726 bicycle units specially made to fit together, is typically installed outdoors. It’s 40 feet tall. It looks like the bicycles go on forever. The metaphor in the title is about being overwhelmed in seeing, yet not being aware of actual facts or numbers, ie. the Chinese government covering up the true amount of students who lost their lives. 

SB:  The idea of covering and falsehood in favor of a pretty picture is actually fairly pertinent here at WashU as well. When I was a senior, one student sadly comited suicide in what was at the time a mud pit, where the parking garage is today. Obviously, the institution would never promote this information, just like the Chinese government would never promote their institutional failings.  But at what cost do we lose individual agency and personal stories for the sake of ‘growth’ or image of larger entities?


MS: This work, in my opinion, is [the] highlight [of] the entire exhibition. A lot of the pieces in this half of the exhibition are directly referencing the earthquake, as well as what followed: Ai’s consequential house arrest and denial of information from the Chinese government. His aesthetic documentation of communications and designs as a response of grief and frustration suggest different anecdotes of what it means to be outspoken, especially when its in an effort to fight for the rights of all those who are suffering… 

SB: The scale of this work, compared to others in the space, is really something. The wallpaper actually caught my attention first. The gallery has two versions of black and white illustrated wallpaper: Odyssey (2016) designed by Ai. On this wall, its imagery of early civilizations are juxtaposed against modern-day depictions of police and authority figures with protest banners from around the world. The banners say things such as, “no one is illegal” and “open the border.”  I love that on the wallpaper, refugees are depicted in classical styles similar to Assyrian, Roman, Greek, and Egyptian figures. 


MS: The wallpaper was made especially for this gallery in St. Louis. There is something about the scale of the wallpapers and Forever Bicycles, and even Through, in the next gallery, that really makes the viewer feel overwhelmed [by] the intensity of institutional power.  The well behind Forever Bicycles is covered in 220 letters between Ai Weiwei and the Chinese government after the earthquake. That wall is situated between two walls covered in the black and white illustrated wallpaper, and there are video displays over the wallpaper. Every possible space on floor or wall seems to be filled.  I think the saturation of the gallery spaces with these images and objects lends itself to the idea that we cannot ignore the global migration crisis, lack of governmental protections nor the suppression from such powers. 

I think the saturation of the gallery spaces with these images and objects lends itself to the idea that we cannot ignore the global migration crisis, lack of governmental protections nor the suppression from such powers. 

SB: Here in this room, the ‘pillar’ of porcelain vases also captured my attention. Here, I think Ai Weiwei really succeeds as a contemporary Chinese Artists, using  traditional ultramarine blue pigment to tell modern stories. Ai Weiwei has used pottery and other historical vessels in his work before - think of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Art is meant for storytelling like this.

MS: That’s funny you say “Contemporary Chinese Artist.” During the Q&A session between Ai Weiwei and Sabine Eckmann, the museum’s chief curator and director [in September], Ai specifically said there is no such thing as Contemporary Chinese art, I think meaning that no one in China is able to freely create.  During the Q&A session, Ai also discussed how easy it was to procure a precious artifact from the street markets. Because of the government’s stance on ideas from the past (pre-Cultural Revolution) historical hand-made objects lost their value. The vase tower you were admiring, Vases with a Refugee Motif (2017), also calls to mind Egyptian hieroglyphic patterning, Greek and Roman narratives seen on their stonewares, and even the work of Lebanese artist Raed Yassin’s piece, The Battle for Tal al-Zaatar (2012).  This way of portraying history in a layered way, as a part of rescued vessels, reinforms Ai Weiwei’s critical look at the government and their stance on the value of art. 


SB:  Ceramics and earthenware have always interested me as an anthropologist. It’s accessible, material storytelling, right? We as humans share visual histories even today, just look at Instagram or snapchat. What’s particularly fascinating to me is inevitable intersection of cultures. You can say it’s good or bad, the influence of the external, and certainly there are different ethics and implications of borrowing or influence, including cultural appropriation, but no culture is isolated today, nor was it in the past. Porcelain was used throughout Asia, and was then brought to Europe with the famous ultramarine blue pigment. “Dutch Delft-ware” is actually just Dutch imagery that was essentially copied and pasted over works from their colonies in Southeast Asia. It is important to note the stealing or exploitation of art processes, often by Western cultures that formerly held colonies in the East or global South. It is also worthwhile to note that art can’t exist without external influence or ‘contamination’. There are always intricate economics, philosophies, and aesthetics that drive artistic choice. For example, the Lego piece of Ai dropping the Vase depicts a unique moment, telling the story of the distinct intersection of culture and time through personal anecdote.The Urn and Ai are Chinese, the Legos are Danish. 

Art can’t exist without external influence or ‘contamination’. There are always intricate economics, philosophies, and aesthetics that drive artistic choice.


Check out the newest interview Ai Wei Wei x Soho House here.