“Do you ever think of yourself as a documentarian?
No, because that would be working within a system. I’m much more casual, it’s wandering here and there, like my cats.”
Lining the ornate Neo-Renaissance halls of the Martin Groupius Bau is a continuous frieze of more than 200 black and white photographs by Ai Weiwei. Taken as a whole, the exhibition is a beautiful almost sculptural object; each glossy black and white image is contained in the same regular large blonde wood square frame, padded by a generous amount of white matte margin. Some images are singular, some are multiple strips of developed film printed as contact sheets, others a sequence of three or four images. The pictures are culled from over 10,000 Ai took during the ten years he lived in New York City between 1983 and 1993.
Ai Weiwei, Bill Clinton at his last campaign stop in New York. 1992, 50,8 x 61 cm (Blatt), Inkjet on Fantac Innova Ultra Smooth Gloss © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Center.
Most of the images are fairly banal, Ai and his friends–an endless stream of visiting artists, musicians and writers from China–visits to MoMA and a surprising friendship with Allen Ginsberg. Ai lived in a tiny East Village apartment for those years, was active in the Chinese community and ended up documenting significant political events in the neighborhood from riots in Tompkins Square to the Wigstock Festival to protests in Washington Square. The show functions more as a document of the time, the people and the place in which Ai found himself.
Some images stand out more than others, striking in composition or subject. For instance, seeing Ai’s open hand reach out from the point of view of the camera toward a man waving out the window of a car surrounded by people is not just an interesting image, it betrays a great deal of foreshadowing. The man Ai attempts to greet is William Jefferson Clinton. At the time Ai was just an unknown foreigner and Clinton was running for President. Looking back now it makes for an incredible co-incidence considering what the two men would go on to do. But this photo is there right along with all the others in a line. There is no sense of hierarchy. This is in keeping with the artist’s conception of the show. As he says in an interview with Stephen H. Tung and Alison Klayman published in the catalogue, “I think the total process can be seen as one piece of work and that’s why I designed the show without emphasizing which particular photos were more important than others.”
Ai Weiwei, Washington Square Park Protest. 1988, 50,8 x 61 cm (Blatt), Inkjet on Fantac Innova Ultra Smooth Gloss © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Center.
On the one hand this complete unit functions as a document of that time in his life: “I had been in New York, so you have a tendency to keep that as one solid package. It’s another me there,” he says. He repeatedly refers to the photograph as evidence but is deeply ambivalent about his relationship to documentation (as the quote at the beginning of this article indicates). Ai also appears ambivalent towards the role or purpose photography plays in his work or if he even likes doing it. Like a cat wandering around and discovering things of interest, Ai began photographing himself and his life in New York. This moved to the events taking place in his neighborhood, specifically the Tompkins Square Park Riot. He eventually had photographs published in various newspapers including The New York Times. When asked how he got involved with newspapers he replies, “I just tried to find out how they worked.”
The images Ai took of incidents in his neighborhood became more than just front-page material. He captured the police brutalizing citizens. “I was interested in individual rights, group rights and their relation to power—power in the form of the police control— and the resulting confrontations and abuse of those rights.” His photographs were used as evidence in a major trial resulting in the precinct head’s resignation. Ai himself was in turn photographed by the police, harassed and had his camera smashed while taking pictures at subsequent protests. Shades of things to come.
Ai Weiwei, Lower East Side Restaurant. 1988, 50,8 x 61 cm (Blatt), Inkjet on Fantac Innova Ultra Smooth Gloss © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Center.
After going through the exhibition one can’t help but wonder about its purpose. Is it really art? Because of its normalcy it’s hard to tell. These are basically just personal snapshots. Ai’s adamance about his casual approach to the medium places them much closer to vernacular photography than anything else. Which can be kind of an uncomfortable place to be. Can a world-renowned artist make amateur photography?
There’s also the suspicion that maybe this is all just because it’s Ai Weiwei and the art world in general and Berlin in particular has a fascination with him these days. Last spring a petition spread through the contemporary art world to free him when he was detained by Chinese authorities under dubious pretences. In April the Tate Modern put a giant message on its façade calling for his release and the Berlin University of the Arts nominated him as visiting professor. In May the Berlin Academy of the Arts elected him as a member and during the city’s gallery week buttons appeared in German, Chinese and English asking, “Where is Ai Weiwei?” Shortly after the exhibition opened at the Martin Gropius Bau, a vastly different group exhibition answered that question on 11.11.11.
Installation view of Bruce Nauman, Good Boy, Bad Boy, 1985, in Fichte-Bunker, site of "Ai Weiwei is in China." Photo by Erik Wenzel.
“Ai Weiwei is in China,” curated by Cédric Aurelle, Louis-Philipe Scoufaras, Xavier Mazzarol, was held in a typically unique Berlin location: a gasometer built in the 1800s which later became an air raid shelter, a juvenile prison and old folks home, a refugee station during the Cold War, a homeless shelter and finally a storehouse for provisions were the Communists ever to blockade West Berlin again. Needless to say the fascinating, and, honestly, horrifying site overshadowed nearly all the work. Bruce Nauman’s Good Boy, Bad Boy (1985) was installed in a bathroom. On raw MDF pedestals, two monitors faced their audience, a line of decrepit toilets. “I SHIT. YOU SHIT. WE SHIT.” And in one of the rooms formerly rented to the homeless–many of which still eerily bear the traces of long-gone occupants on their walls: drawings by children and fragments of pictures and magazine clippings–was an iPhone. Glowing in the blackness from its place on the wall facing the doorway was a single digital photo of Ai Weiwei, a self portrait (untitled, 2011), the artist looking into the phone’s camera holding a dandelion gone to seed. Perhaps about to blow and make a wish?
(top image: Ai Weiwei. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 1983, 61 x 50,8 cm (Blatt), Inkjet on Fantac Innova Ultra Smooth Gloss © Ai Weiwei; Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Art Center.)